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City on Fire by Walter Jon Williams
Published by Harper Paperbacks
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
City on Fire by Walter Jon Williams is the sequel to Metropolitan. Having left her old life as a civil servant in the Scope of Jaspeer behind, Aiah travels to Caraqui, where the charismatic Constantine overthrew a corrupt government in hopes of creating his New City. Although she wonders if he will have her, Constantine quickly offers her a position in his government, tracking down plasm thieves and bringing them to justice. In particular he wants her to target the local form of organized crime, the Silver Hand. Aiah's family has been hurt by organized crime, so she is quite glad of the mandate to destroy the Silver Hand.
Aiah soon discovers that she will have to be working with the twisted, people whose genetics have been altered through the use or misuse of plasm. At first she has to overcome revulsion, but in time she comes to know these people as individuals and even to respect them. She pulls together an innovative collection of resources, including her own talents with plasm, to track down illegal plasm houses run by the Silver Hand. In doing so, she discovers a fascinating hint of intermittant gaps in the all-encompassing Shield, through which it is possible to glimpse the universe beyond the one world to which her people have been confined for unknown ages.
In the process, she discovers that Constantine is still working with Taikoen, a "hanged man" whose very touch is inimical to human life. This miserable being was once a great mage who broke the power of the Slaver Mages. However, he became so immersed in plasm that he lost contact with his own body, and in his unnatural immortality he ever longs for human sensation. Although he can possess a body for a time and through it enjoy human experience, he burns out bodies within a matter of days. To pay off a debt, Constantine is giving him the bodies of the worst criminals of the Silver Hand.
Then crisis strikes. Neighboring metropolises, feeling threatened by Constantine's plans, give support to the fallen former government of Caraqui, who then attack. In the war, one of the three leaders of Caraqui is slain, and must be replaced by a new triumvir. Aiah calls upon the secret militia of her own Barkazil people, beaten and dispossessed since her grandmother's time, to become a mercenary force under Constantine. She also enables a Barkazil mercenary unit to extract itself from service to the enemy and switch sides. Even while the war is going on, Constantine's research forces are working on a new theory of fractionate intervals which may increase plasm production by a significant amount. Aiah also searches for other plasm theives, and begins to investigate the mysterious order known only as the Dreaming Sisters.
In the midst of the crisis, while Constantine's attention is elsewhere, the triumvir Parq, a religious leader, consolidates his own growing power and decides to enforce his religious tenets upon the public at large. His "Purification" includes the purge of all geneticly altered people from positions of any responsibility and from all respectable neighborhoods, as well as enforcement of the sumptuary laws that have long been winked at. Aiah, outraged at the abuses, uses her skill with plasm to strike against some of the worst thugs. Soon word of the avenging Golden Lady is everywhere, giving courage to the victims of Parq's tyranny.
Finally Constantine returns in triumph to displace Parq, who has thoroughally discredited the notion of theocracy. All is not well, for Taikoen is increasing his extortion on Constantine. Aiah resolves to destroy Taikoen, but despairs of how. Her discoveries about the Dreaming Sisters' extraordinary harmony and skill provides an answer. With their leader's consent, she traps Taikoen in their temple. There the sisters use their knowledge of plasm mechanics to damp out the plasm modulation that is Taikoen's being, and thus to nullify him. This is not without casualties, for Taikoen slew two dreaming sisters, and Aiah's momentary contact with his essence has warped her perceptions.At the very end, she goes back to their temple, where they give her healing.
There is supposed to be one more book after this, which will apparently carry through to their discovery of just what is beyond the Shield and how to get there. I can only hope that it comes out before too long.
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Review posted January 30, 1999