Content warning: familial abuse, graphic violence, suicidal ideation
Sometimes the books reviewed on this blog live up to the title and are quite thick. Nowhere does this show up more than in fantasy epics like Tara Sim’s latest new adult release, The City of Dusk.
In The City of Dusk, we are introduced to seven point of view characters, with five main characters taking up most of the book, whose magic-filled lives are anything but magical. The four noble houses of Nexus—the titular city of dusk—have maintained their hold on the power structures of the land for hundreds of years. Each family bears the powers of the god who make up part of their heritage: House Mardova, the mastery of elements; House Cyr, the power to harness light and flight; House Lastrider, the power to harness darkness and shadow; and House Vakara, the mastery of necromancy. The houses have long jockied for power along with the ruling monarchy. The heirs of each house have become increasingly aware of their house’s stance of remaining removed from the others in order to gain patronage from the Holy King, who is presumed to be on the lookout for an heir to the throne as he has no heir of his own.
Angelica Mardova has taken her role as heir very seriously. She maintains distance from the nobles of other houses despite growing up with them, and works hard to please her ambitious mother—so much so that the stress from carrying all of her family’s expectations has ruined her relationship with magic. Constantly wary of the ways her peers and those she’d like to impress perceive her failures, Angelica is guarded in every interaction, especially with the heirs she considers as competition for the throne.
Nikolas Cyr has similar concerns as the remaining child of House Cyr. After the tragic death of his younger brother and protegé of their father years before the timing of The City of Dusk, Nikolas has wrestled with stepping into the shoes his brother left open and feels like a poor replacement. Trying hard to keep a stiff upper lip, he takes on the responsibility of investigating special cases—such as major landmarks in the city mysteriously disappearing—on behalf of the magical nobility. His inexperience with combat is one of the many things he avoids sharing with the heir he feels closest to, his erstwhile love interest, Taesia Lastrider.
A ‘spare’ of House Lastrider, Taesia has been happy to maintain a friendship (with benefits in Nikolas’ case) with the rest of the heirs. Which means much of her worldview falls apart when her older brother is imprisoned after being indicated as the culprit behind the cases Nikolas’ team investigates. Taesia becomes determined to vindicate her brother and return him to the primary role as heir at the price of anything else. This route leads her to dark favors from her closest friend, Risha Vakara.
Risha Vakara tries to be the most levelheaded person in the room at all times, a personality trait that one needs as a necromancer. Having served her House’s responsibilities for Nexus since her early teens, Risha is hyper aware of the growing discord among the unreleased souls who have been able to ascend the mystical barrier that the gods erected between Nexus and other realms hundreds of years ago. While seeking to break the barrier, she finds that working with the rest of the House heirs may suit many of their goals. As they grow closer to learning the truth behind the purpose of the barrier she finds that her power and inheritance has more to do with the structure than she ever would have imagined.
Not only does Sim do a good job of situating each of these characters’ needs and motivations along with an expansive plot, she also adds well-rounded secondary characters–—primarily the siblings and other relatives of these Houses. One notable secondary character is Julian, a commoner who works as a Hunter of magical beasts. When Nikolas gains his own charge for magical investigations, he also gains Julian as part of his team. Julian has a magical affinity that he has been forced to keep secret, as no one has ever been recorded as having it before and he needs to maintain a level of anonymity in order to care for his chronically-ill mother. Through the story Sim shows us how even those who seem to have small roles in a greater narrative are often the genesis of a major change. This is a key component of Julian’s storyline.
Clocking in at 542 pages as the first book in a trilogy, The City of Dusk is every bit a fantasy epic. I have longed to see necromancy set up in more interesting ways and I found the way that magic works in this series intriguing. In this world the gods have just as much to do with the way the humans move on a daily basis as any other worldly desire. Sexuality is fluid and relationships have major stakes in character development. Where there’s violence, there’s brutality, so a warning to those who don’t care for gruesome death scenes. I found the climax of the story logical as a natural progression of several events and look forward to catching the rest of the story after it’s curious cliffhanger.