Review: Blackfish City by Sam J Miller

An Arctic city off Greenland, fueled by geothermic vents under the sea, is the setting for Miller’s thriller. ‘A stranger rides into town’ is reputably one of two core plots and Blackfish City takes that to heart by having a woman arrive at the city of Qaanaaq with a chained polar bear on a boat pulled by an orca. Dubbed the orcamancer by the city’s population, her arrival marks the unraveling of the city’s social order.

As the plot depends on a series of revelations (not plot twists as such more gradual reveals) the story starts in one style and shifts overtime. Initially, we get a picture of a future city, dependent on technology but in a semi-collapsed future world ravaged by climate change of social instability. The story follows different characters, a politician’s aide, a rich kid with a powerful uncle, a fighter being dragged unwillingly into organised crime and a street messenger with ambition.

The city is a multicultural mix of refugees and wealthy landlords and operated as a kind of minarchist state by disinterested AIs and exploitative landlords. To add to the city’s problems, a sexually transmitted disease called ‘the breaks’ is endemic in the city, sending its victims into an apparent dissociative state.

As the story progresses, more backstory is revealed and we learn how the apparently unconnected characters are part of a bigger story that also contains a deeper backstory.

Prejudice, violence, corruption all play a part in a story that might be best described as a tragedy with hopeful elements. Qaanaaq is not some relentless dystopia nor does the story adopt a cynical worldview. However, several characters are motivated by revenge or a quest for power and control.

Bridging the space between personal narratives is a further mystery: City Without a Map. A kind of social media narrative as an ostensible guide to the city that is disseminated from a single source but is made by multiple narrators. As well as fleshing out the character of the city, City Without a Map is an additional mystery pulling one of the characters into attempts to unravel some of Qaanaaq’s secrets.

Violent but cleverly constructed. I started reading it as an audio book last year but stopped as I had just finished Annalee Newtiz’s Autonomous, which is a very different book but had too many points in common to be read back-to-back. Coming back to Blackfish City a second time, I was more engaged but I never warmed to any of the characters. There was a kind of helplessness to many of them and to the others a narrow vision (for good plot reasons) that made it hard for me to engage with.

Worth reading? Yes, and it’s an excellent example of complex world building done via complex personal narratives. Some excellent prose as well. I’m not surprised by the attention it has got.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Blackfish City by Sam J Miller

  1. I recently dnfed this one temporarily — it was interesting, but I just wasn’t in the mood — but I really liked The Art of Starving last year.

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  2. I liked this quite a bit, for the same reasons you did, but I also had similar caveats: that things are settled (to the extent they are) entirely through acts of violence; and I didn’t find most of the characters particularly engaging, either (which is not the same as requiring that they be ‘likeable’).

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