City Of The Iron Fish by Simon Ings (book review).

October 5, 2018 | By | Reply More

The thing that really drew me to this book is the eye-catching artwork on the cover, which is by one of my favourite cover artists, Jeffrey Alan Love. Drawing me in enough to read the blurb, I thought that ‘The City Of The Iron Fish’ sounded intriguing and I was looking forward to my first foray into the imagination of Simon Ings.

The story opens with Thomas, a young boy preparing for the city’s transformation celebrations, which happen only once every twenty years. These celebrations are a way to renew the city, feeding ideas, desires and random scraps of thought into a symbolic iron fish that allows the city to shift form and become something new. Of course, nobody expects anything too radical, perhaps a few changes to the aesthetic of the place, but no major upheavals. Yet as the boy grows into a man, working his way through college and becoming part of an elite clique of artists, poets and dreamers, he realises that sometimes major changes are needed and if he can’t find a way to renew the city it might all come crumbling down around him.

‘The City Of The Iron Fish’ probably falls somewhere in between the realms of fantasy and Science Fiction, perhaps nestling in that vaguest of categories: speculative fiction. It has just a touch of magic about it, but with enough hints that it might all really have some basis in technology that it is difficult to categorise definitively. I suppose what it feels like most is a college novel, set in a place that, despite its peculiarities, I couldn’t help but picture as a bit like Oxford or Cambridge. Certainly a lot of the setting has that kind of posh university town feeling to it, with fringes of poverty creeping in every so often around the affluence of the central characters and their social circles.

There’s a lot of discussion of art and politics which felt a bit laboured at times but for the most part worked with the characters and their social setting. It made the pace of the novel struggle a bit, with long paragraphs and an overly wordy approach making it a difficult read. At first, I enjoyed the elegant text, the comprehensive descriptions and the meandering approach to the plot. But after a while, I really wished that Ings could occasionally use just one or two words instead of ten or twelve to describe even the simplest thing. I even had to get the dictionary out a few times to uncover the meaning of some of the more obscure words.

Character-wise, I didn’t really find this as engaging as I’d hoped. The central character, Thomas, was hard to relate to and I thought that the brief section set in his childhood at the very start of the novel was unnecessary and felt somewhat detached from the rest of the book. Jumping straight from that to when he goes to university felt oddly disjointed and I felt as though we’d missed getting to know him but were expected to have filled in the gaps anyway.

He was at times quite irritating and seemed a bit inconsistent so that some of his actions felt jarring. The only other character that feels worthy of a mention is Blythe, one of Thomas’ artist friends and even she feels under-developed, although I grew to quite like her and her single-minded determination to not be bested in what felt very much like a male-dominated environment.

Although there was definitely a magical element to this novel, for the most part it was lost among the mundane day to day life of a student and his close circle of friends. A good deal of time is focused on his relationships with other men and his friendship with Blythe, with very little time given over to the exploration of what could have been a truly fascinating setting. The only real moment of interest is when Thomas and Blythe travel to the edge of their country and the peculiar nature of this border is described wonderfully. It’s the only moment where I felt that the author really let the readers into this mysterious world and I’d have liked to see a lot more of this throughout the novel.

Overall, I did find ‘The City Of The Iron Fish’ to be somewhat disappointing. It was too wordy, had too little of the fantastic to satisfy my imagination and suffered with characters that had too little charisma to make up for the meagre amount of plot. Would I read another book by Simon Ings? Maybe. Would I be in a rush to do so? Definitely not.

Vinca Russell

October 2018

(pub: Gollancz. 273 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK), $15.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-575-13089-0)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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