Epic fantasy about an orphan girl and a forgotten city
I am still chipping away at my to-read shelf, and in my efforts to tackle some of the fantasy books I have had lying around for some time, I remembered I had this one. I actually won 6 books in this series in the annual Worldbuilders fundraiser. Money donated goes to Heifer International, and each US$10 you donate secures you an entry in their lottery. I’ve donated over a few years, and one year was lucky enough to win a prize! I talk about it in much more depth in a podcast episode. Anyway, these books have been collecting dust for way too long so it was time to at least read the first one.
“The Hidden City” by Michelle West is an epic fantasy novel and the first in the series called “The House War”. The book is about a young homeless girl named Jewel, who insists on being called Jay. When she tries to rob the mysterious and reclusive Rath, his attempts to reclaim his goods end up with him reluctantly taking a very sick Jay in. As the unlikely pair form a mentor-mentee bond, Jay begins to share her newfound fortune with other street children. However, Rath’s clandestine activities retrieving treasures from a forgotten city, Jay’s untested powers and an unspeakable crime ring reveal many more children in need of help and a growing danger that could threaten the entire world as they know it.
This is a deliberate, thoughtful novel with a strong focus on character development and morality. Despite Rath’s initial denial, the bond between him and Jay steadily strengthens and they each begin to have a profound effect on one another. I really enjoyed the other children who steadily trickled into Jay’s life, and how she slowly coaxes them out of their shells and unites them. I particularly liked Carver, and how West wove a bit of mystery around his background and why he was there at the right time. It is a high stakes novel, and West is not afraid of pushing her characters and their loyalties to their limits.
However, it is a slow-paced novel, and at times West’s painstaking review of the intricacies of each relationship feels like it stalls the story. While quirky at the beginning, Rath’s apparent refusal to acknowledge the extent to which he has welcomed Jay into his life begins to lose its impact. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that I felt could have been stronger. Although a street urchin, Jay’s abilities mean that she could potentially have secured a home studying to strengthen her powers, everyone dismisses that as an option for her without any adequate explanation. Many of the conversations are indirect and full of politicking, but West never really makes it clear whether all this dancing around is a cultural feature of this world or simply an attempt to build suspense.
I do also want to mention the book cover. As I said in the photo caption above, the cover has an image of a girl holding a blade. The girl has fair skin, curly light brown hair and light eyes that could be hazel in colour. In the book, Jay is described as having “[b]rown eyes, dark skin, unruly hair” and is later described as being biracial. This book was originally published in 2007, and there has been a lot of discourse about whitewashing book covers since then. I completely appreciate that authors often have very little say in these decisions, and that publishing houses like DAW have come a long way when it comes to representation, however I think it’s still important to acknowledge that this is something that happens – even to authors like Ursula K. Le Guin!
I could see a lot of potential in this book for an epic fantasy series, and those who like to get absorbed in for hours and hours in another world may very well get a lot out of it, but I don’t think I’m quite hooked enough to read the other 5 books I won (let alone the rest of the series).