Tim Lebbon was a new name to me when I picked up Echo City, though I had heard many good things of his work. Being a stand-alone novel, Echo City looked like a good place to start. It presents a neat dark-fantasy story which though very well thought out and interesting, still felt somewhat lacking in many respects; the characters aren’t as engaging enough and the focus of the story too narrow for it to score perfect marks. Echo City does have some redeeming features, though, like its dark and complex world and mythology which serve as the ideal background against which the story may play out.
Surrounded by a vast, poisonous desert, Echo City Is built upon the graveyard of its own past. Most inhabitants believe that their city and its subterranean Echoes are the whole o the world, nut there are a few dissenters. Peer Nadawa is a political exile, forced to live with criminals in a ruinous slum. Gorham, once her lover, leads a ragtag band of rebels against the ruling theocracy. Nophel, servant of that theocracy, dreams of revenge from his perch atop the city’s tallest spire. And beneath the city, a woman called Nadielle conducts macabre experiments in genetic manipulation using a science indistinguishable from sorcery. They believe there is something more beyond the endless desert... but want?
It is only when a stranger arrives from out of the wastes that things begun to change. Frail and amnesiac, he holds the key to a new beginning for Echo City - or perhaps to its end, for he is not the only new arrival. From the depths beneath Echo City, something ancient and deadly is rising. Now Peer, Gorham, Nophel, and Nadielle must test the limits of love and loyalty, courage and compassion, as they struggle to save a city collapsing under the weight of its own history.
Echo City is a book of many mysteries. From the onset, Lebbon throws many enigmas the reader’s way. What is Echo City? Why does it exist? Why is it impossible to cross the desert that surrounds it? What dark secrets lay in its past? All of these questions crop up relatively early in the narrative, and since it is a stand-alone, it would be expected that the novel answer all or most of these. And though Lebbon does answer a certain number of these (and other) questions and make attempts at the ones he doesn’t, I wouldn’t say that the answers given are entirely satisfying.
This probably comes from the rather narrow perspective of the story. Though it follows the point of view of many characters, all of them can be put into the same ‘group’ if you will, as they are all acting together to achieve a particular goal. Therefore, the focus of the story tends to pertain only to the main cast of characters and their actions and much is left out in terms of the city as a whole. It’s as if the setting is too large in scope for the focus of the novel and the fact that it is a stand-alone.
What Lebbon does well though is manipulate the darker, fantastical elements of the plot. The fascinating science of the Bakers and their ability to genetically modify humans to create often morbid, unnatural and outright creepy beings is deftly handled by Lebbon as an element of the greater plot. The somber echoes - the ruins of previous evolutions of Echo City buried under the newer additions - are both intriguing and able to bring on a tense atmosphere and are perfect as a setting for the dire events that play out in them.
Another issue that is difficult to ignore is that of the lack of tangible antagonist, or ‘big baddy.’ I know it’s a bit childish to break a story down to the good guys and the bad guys, especially in these times of character ambiguity and lack of defined ‘good’ and ‘evil’ but what Echo City lacks is not a Lord of All Evil, but any sort of characterized opposition that leads to conflict with the protagonists. If one were to classify it by what kind of conflict it features, Echo City would most easily be qualified as a ‘Individual(s) vs. Environment’ more than anything else. Sure that’s fine sometimes or as one of many types of conflict in a story, but most people look for some form of conflict between different characters that clash ideologically, culturally or in some other way. A little self-doubt and bickering between the protagonists just wasn’t enough interesting conflict for me.
Tim Lebbon’s latest effort, then, is one with more flaws then qualities. The story and setting had quite a bit of potential, but they didn’t make up for the lack of key story-elements. Just the potential the book had, though, and the strengths Lebbon still displayed in his writing make me interested in anything else Mr. Lebbon will publish in the future. Echo City has already been out in the US for a little while, and is due to be published this summer in the UK.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 16 and up
Tim Lebbon's Website: http://www.timlebbon.net/
Buy Echo City: