Echo City by Tim Lebbon. Book review

echocityECHO CITY by Tim Lebbon, Orbit, paperback, £8.99, www.orbitbooks.net

Reviewed by Richard Webb @RaW_writing

Tim Lebbon’s EchoCity is a speculative fantasy in the new-weird vein with aspects of horror and steampunk based in a city surrounded by toxic (perhaps post-apocalyptic) desert: for centuries, no-one has left EchoCity, and no-one has visited. Thus by necessity the city builds upon itself, layering the new upon the old, literally burying its own past. Citizens live in the present with little or no concept of history and the theme of cultural memory (actually cultural amnesia in this instance) is signified but is worthy of more exploration.

The prologue, featuring a sequence of babushka-like progenitors, is grossly engrossing, and sets up some of the corporeal bio-shock that returns later in the book. Lebbon paints a vivid picture of the city and we feel much of its quirks, strangeness and charms through the broad brushstrokes of atmosphere and the finer points of detail about daily life for its inhabitants. This decelerates the story after the momentum-gathering opening, but this is fine as it enables a glimpse into the touching relationship between Peer and Penler. The first act closes with the inciting incident – the arrival into EchoCity of a man walking in from the desert — and everything seems nicely poised.

From that point the incorporation of this man into Peer’s socio-political activism against the city’s bureaucratic subjugators the Marcellans is only partially successful – both in terms of the events of the story and the effectiveness of the narrative. The man, given the name Rufus Kyuss, is unsure of his role and has no demonstrable abilities and thus has limited impact, again in both senses. This might be in part due to the unquantifiable nature of the Marcellans – their threat is only suggested and this dissipates the dissidence, as it were.

There is a recurrent dark fantasy/sci-fi/ horror element in the body alchemy of ‘chopping’—a process of human cloning and gene splicing, though this is rather too reminiscent of the forced modifications of the ReMade in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. It is a little surprising how few ethical objections are raised to this in the book, as the antagonism between outrage at this abuse/slavery and the pragmatism of necessity/benefit is fertile ground to furrow deeper. However it does make for a delightfully grotesque array of creations, such as a semi-human telescope and a living subway system, even if Lebbon just leaves us to ponder the freak-show without comment.

The inventiveness of the imagery is the strength of the book, and the author’s command of prose makes for many colourful sequences. But strong interior decoration won’t hold up a building without solid foundations. The book seems unsure of what it is actually ‘about’ and this is a fundamental flaw which could use re-pointing; with so many potentially provoking themes hinted at, opportunities to build upon them are missed, as if Lebbon is reluctant to delve down into the layers of his own creation for fearing of finding fault lines.

After some pacing issues in the middle third – there is much moving through the city but not all of it is purposeful – the story then rushes its ending and the looming catastrophe in the city is too Deus ex Machina. Without Spoiling, it feels at odds with the majority of the story, the focus of which is the underground rebellion. So engulfing is the climax it reduces much that comes before to irrelevancy. A shame, as the rebellion is the human story; the blockbuster ending has scale and volume but little emotional depth and fractures the story, leaving questions hanging. For instance, the enigma of Rufus Kyuss does not seem to fully play out — who is he and what does his arrival actually mean? On finishing the book I was not quite certain.

This is a book of great ideas – some original, some that ‘echo’ other fantasy cities – but it is an interesting setting. It has a tantalizing premise, a set of characters to root for, themes worthy of expansion and a gallery of curiosities, but does itself a slight injustice by being distracted away from these strengths just as they should reach a culmination.