Michelle West – The Hidden City

Michelle West has written several series taking place in the same universe. According to Wikipedia one can start off with her most recent series, The House War, as the first three novels form a sort of prequel. As the local bookstore only had novels of The House War and I was able to get them on discount the choice was easiest to take my first glance into this universe with The House War.

The setting for the first novel, The Hidden City (2008), is one large city. It is however not an urban fantasy in the common sense. It does not take place in an alternative earth and it does not contain familiar beings from fantastical Earth mythology. Well, that is not completely true. They are just not that obvious. The pace of the story is also slower and the characters do not roll from crisis into crisis at each turn.

The novel has two main protagonists which also form the focus of story in the beginning. Gradually West expands the number of characters. She does this in a careful way, taking her time to introduce them while also moving the plot forward. Because she does not present them all at once she has plenty of time for characterization in between the plot development. The pace of the read is in this way never slow although one cannot call it fast. I can only consider it well balanced. The characters presented in the story are of a familiar mold but nowhere stereotypes because West is able to flesh them out and make them different.

The plot develops steadily. As the situation becomes more dangerous the cast of characters grows and the action is turned up a notch while never going overboard or dominating. Each event provides opportunities to develop several characters. West does this in an excellent way. It is not too obvious although the reader is well aware of the process the particular character is going through.

Usually my reviews are more of a list of flaws and weaknesses that I’ve noticed in a novel. There is usually less to be said about the qualities of the novel or whatever makes it good. This time I have to admit that I have no flaw or weakness to comment on. I would not call The Hidden City perfect as the story might be engaging and entertaining, it did not hit home for me or have a plot that surprised or captivated me. West kept it all on a relatively low level, providing plenty of character confrontations and conflicts which provided great sparks. She kept a great focus and the story and plot are perfectly balanced with the characters and their development. I can only say that I was very much impressed with this novel. I could name it a hidden gem as I haven’t seen or heard anything about Michelle West before. I only got her name as a tip from a friend. I don’t know yet about the quality of her other novels, but when I compare it to the average mainstream fantasy stuff she, at least on this novel, moves far above that level. I can’t imagine her other work to be that much worse. So now I am certainly incensed to explore the other novels that are set in this universe. This one is highly recommended.

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