Publisher: W. F. Howes (Audiobook – 15 December 2022)
Series: Standalone/Book One
Length: 20 hours and 7 minutes
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Acclaimed fantasy and science fiction author Adrian Tchaikovsky delivers one of the best fantasy books of 2023 with the intricate and captivating City of Last Chances.
Over the last year I have been really getting into the works of Adrian Tchaikovsky, one of the most inventive and imaginative authors of fantasy and science fiction writing today. Tchaikovsky is a skilled and prolific author who has been a major figure in genre since 2008. Best known for his Shadows of the Apt, Children of Time, Echoes of the Fall and The Final Architecture series, as well as a compelling collection of standalone novels and novellas (I personally have my eye on his previous novel, Guns of the Dawn), Tchaikovsky has a great habit of creating elaborate new worlds filled with intriguing characters and scenarios. I have only read a couple of his books so far, including Tchaikovsky’s first Warhammer 40,000 novel, Day of Ascension, and his outstanding 2022 novella, Ogres, but both were outstanding reads and I loved the epic stories both of them contained. Because of this, Tchaikovsky’s latest standalone novel, City of Last Chances, has been on my radar for a while. It was released last year, and I finally managed to get a copy on audiobook a short while ago and dove into it as soon as I could. However, I was unprepared for just how captivating its story would be.
There has always been a darkness hanging over the ancient city of Ilmar. Known colloquially as the City of Long Shadows, the City of Bad Decisions, and the City of Last Chances, Ilmar is home to many dangerous magical occurrences, including the mysterious Anchorwood at its centre, which serves as a gateway to other far-off worlds. However, a far more sinister enemy has arrived at Ilmar, the soldiers of the Palleseen, a powerful empire seeking to bring its ideas of perfection and order to all it conquers, whether they like it or not.
After several years of occupation, Ilmar is at a tipping point. Its citizens are fed up of the corrupt and brutal soldiers, and everyone in Ilmar, be they rebels, criminals, refugees, idealistic students or factory workers, is looking for an opportunity to strike back and make their lives better. With these forces straining to be unleashed, all it takes is one spark to set the fire of anarchy. That spark occurs when a powerful Palleseen official leads an ill-advised expedition into the Anchorwood, searching for additional power. However, he is unaware that an opportunistic thief has stolen the necessary protective amulet in advance, and the expedition is massacred by the creatures that live within the wood.
As news of this crime spreads throughout the city, chaos begins to rear its head. Everyone is searching for the valuable amulet that was stolen as it represents the greatest chance of freedom many will see, while the Palleseen soldiers are clamping down on the entire city, determined to find those responsible and make them pay. In this chaos, a mixture of Ilmar’s citizens, including a desperate priest, a violent murderer, an unlucky thief, a duplicitous lecturer and several of the most lost people in the city, will seek to survive the oncoming storm, only to fan the flames further. However, none are truly prepared for the full danger about to engulf Ilmar, or the heartbreak that follows with it.
Well damn, now that was a pretty damn epic book. Tchaikovsky has delivered an exceptionally intriguing and addictive novel in City of Last Chances that got me hooked very early on. I was honestly blown away with the captivating and unique narrative that City of Last Chances contained, and Tchaikovsky drew me in with every fantastic detail and distinctive character. This book gets a very easy five-star rating from me as I am still thinking about every detail of this book.
City of Last Chances has an amazing fantasy narrative at its centre, which Tchaikovsky backs up with his impressive and distinctive writing style that results in an extremely entertaining, powerful, and intense read. City of Last Chances follows a raft of different characters as they attempt to navigate a series of deadly events following a single theft. Tchaikovsky sets out the story in a very interesting way, and the book initially feels more like a collection of short stories than one cohesive narrative; for most of the first half of the book, each chapter acts as a semi-independent story that introduces the reader to a new character and shows their place in Ilmar. These new characters are often supporting or named figures from a previous character’s chapter, who have their own unique stories and lives. These character-driven stories are all quite enjoyable and compelling in their own way, and Tchaikovsky cleverly alters the tone so that some come off as very serious, some are quite dark, and others can be a little more comedic and thought provoking. Some of my initial favourites include the funny and philosophical first chapter around the priest Yasnic and his relationship with God (which reminded me a lot of Small Gods by Terry Pratchett), Langrice’s scene-setting chapter at the mysterious Anchorage inn, and the chapter that gave a proper and humorous introduction to the grim figure of Blackmane as he finds himself about to be executed by a very cheery hangman. Not only are these chapters very entertaining in themselves, but they effectively set up a larger narrative within City of Last Chances, while also providing great character moments and more and more glimpses into the many aspects of Ilmar.
As the book continues, the character-driven chapters begin to flow on from the preceding storylines, with the catalytic theft of the Palleseen artefact leading to bigger events down the line. Each chapter adds its own spin to these events by showing new factions, impacted characters, or horrors within the city, or by introducing a new series of spiralling events that begin to unwind the situation even further. As the story continues, a main cast begins to develop as more of the chapters focus on certain characters. This really starts to bring the overarching narrative together, and soon the best parts of each unique character and their arcs begin to mingle with the other fantastic figures. The story soon develops into a great tale of revolution with some Les Misérables vibes to it, as students, refugees, resistance fighters and factory workers begin to revolt. The substantial main cast is worked into these events extremely well, and the reader is soon wrapped up in their powerful character arcs as well as the overarching story of Ilmar as everything begins to unfold. Most of this is captured in a series of great chapters focused on the main cast, although new characters are still introduced right up into the end, with some unique, if brief, storylines skilfully worked into the larger narrative. The author really pushes everything up a notch as the book comes towards the end, and every danger, unusual occurrence and strange character is unleashed to some degree. There are some outstanding reveals, big battles, and some deeply personal moments that really help to bring the entire fantastic story together. I particularly loved how some great story elements that were hinted at earlier in the book are brought to the fore at the end, especially as this includes some outstanding twists (Hellgram’s wife was a fun one for me). However, the true joy is in the way that every major character gets a resolution to their emotional and complex character arcs, leaving the reader breathless in multiple ways. I felt that Tchaikovsky wrapped everything up perfectly, and this serves as a brilliant and captivating standalone fantasy narrative.
I cannot compliment the way that Tchaikovsky presented this outstanding story enough, as his distinctive writing style really helped to compliment the epic and complex plot. I have already mentioned his great use of different character focused chapters above, and I must once again highlight how effectively they were used to tell a cohesive and distinctive narrative with so many entertaining facets. While it did take me a little while to fully appreciate what Tchaikovsky was trying to achieve with these semi-independent chapters, once you notice how the story is coming together through character-focused sequences, you really grow to appreciate it. The continued change of character focus ensures that Tchaikovsky keeps the pace of City of Last Chances pretty brisk, and it is easy to quickly move through the story, especially once you get caught up in the tale of Ilmar and its people that the author is developing. Tchaikovsky also introduces some impactful changes in tone throughout the book, as City of Last Chances runs the gauntlet from being light-hearted to emotionally draining, as the protagonists go through hell and back while also trying to deal with their own personal problems. The author puts in some pretty intense scenes throughout this powerful story, many of which leave the characters reeling in different ways, and there are also some quite terrifying or shocking sequences as the full horror of this city is revealed in gruesome fashion. However, these darker scenes are often undercut with some fun and amusing humour that helps to diffuse the tension at some key parts of the plot and which I found to be very refreshing. This humour is often a little black and cynical in context, which ensures that the reader is left amused, and sometimes laughing, without the story getting too light and drifting away from its harsher content. I really think that Tchaikovsky found the right balance here, and I rather enjoyed how he mixed everything together. I had so much fun seeing how Tchaikovsky wove his complex tale into this book and City of Last Chances really emphasises just how talented he is as an author.
One of the key things that made City of Last Chances such a hit for me was the outstanding setting of Ilmar. Tchaikovsky has always been exceedingly good at effectively building up an inventive and complex new setting for his stories, and this is some of his best work yet. The author shows Ilmar through the eyes of so many different characters in this book, each of whom adds a new aspect to its history, character, and energy, as the story progresses. This proves to be quite an effective way to introduce the setting, and the reader soon gets an impressive picture of the entire chaotic glory of this oppressed city. I love all the aspects of this place, including the magical dimension-hopping wood and the responsibilities surrounding it, the demon powered factories, the oppressed refugee areas, the idealistic student academy and the sinister Reproach, an abandoned part of the city filled with magically cursed wretches dancing to their death. Each of these complex and compelling elements are explored to their fullest throughout City of Last Chances and I really appreciated how Tchaikovsky built them up and then effectively featured them again later in the story.
The author also explores various parts of the world outside of Ilmar, and it is interesting to see how that impacts on the main story. I particularly liked the use of the Palleseen as the overarching antagonists of the story and Tchaikovsky paints them as an obsessed group of fanatics trying to bring their ideas of perfection to an unwilling world. This plays into several of Tchaikovsky usual themes about oppression and revolution, and he sets the Palleseen up as a vindictive group, who are often hamstrung by the practices and bureaucracy they force on their enemy. The entire focus on the city of Ilmar being unleashed to face the occupiers was an excellent part of the book, and Tchaikovsky built up all the factions and chaotic nature of the city really well. As such, Ilmar is a brilliant background setting to this great story and I really appreciated how Tchaikovsky set his story into it.
While I loved so many of City of Last Chances elements, for me the most important and powerful part of the book is the characters, as Tchaikovsky introduces the reader to a massive and captivating cast of figures who travel through the story in their own fashion. Due to the way the story is set out, there are quite a lot of characters in City of Last Chances, with new cast members being added in every chapter, either to support the current point-of-view protagonist or to set them up for their own chapter later. As such, there is a real focus on quickly and effectively getting to the root of each character in their first chapter, and I think that Tchaikovsky did a great job on this score. You get to know each of these figures really quickly and you really get drawn into their unique tales and arcs, many of which are perfectly developed over the course of the book. While the cast is pretty massive, each of these characters is given plenty of time to develop and many prove to be particularly complex and relatable as a result.
While there are so many great characters, several definitely stood out to me, especially as Tchaikovsky kept going back to them. This includes Yasnic, the last priest of a diminished and petty god who now haunts his one follower. Yasnic is a fantastic and occasionally comedic character, which reminded me a little of the protagonist of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods. While I did think that Yasnic was a bit one-note at the start of the book, he develops as the story continues, and you really appreciate just how complex and damaging his life as a priest has been, thanks to his god’s arbitrary rules, many of which have actual good reasons behind them. Watching him try to balance his faith and connection to his god against the terrible things being done to him and the city is a key part of the book, and it leads to some emotionally powerful scenes, especially when Yasnic thinks that his god is being taken away from him against his will.
Other great characters include Langrice, the shunned owner of the Anchorage, the inn that borders the Anchorwood, and Blackmane, an Allorwen refugee and former sorcerer, who serves as a criminal pawnbroker. Both characters are older and wearier figures who are trying to survive the harsh circumstances of their lives the best way they can. Both are shown to be outcasts to their own people in different ways, and this leads to a compelling relationship between the two, even if they do not actually trust each other. I also quite liked the character of Maestro Ivarn Ostravar, a lecturer at Ilmar’s Gownhall university, who acts as a great patriot to his students while actually collaborating with the Palleseen. Ivarn is a particularly arrogant figure who manages to manipulate people’s views of him, and it is really fun to see him thrown into situations outside of his control, especially when his own reputation works against him and forces him to become the figure head of resistance. His student, Lemya, is also a great part of the book due to her fervent idealism brought on by Ivarn’s teachings. Off course, her naivety comes back to bite her and the other characters repeatedly, and while her actions are often a little frustrating, it is great to see her slowly realise she is being manipulated and gain some common sense.
However, to my mind the best character in the book is Ruslav, which is frankly a shock as he initially shown as a simple thug with an obsession for women. However, Tchaikovsky keeps coming back to him as the story develops and each new situation he finds himself in makes him more complex and likeable. His first chapter shows how his entire perspective on life is changed when he falls in love with a beautiful painting, which starts a great character arc of self-discovery and confusion for him. Tchaikovsky keeps developing Ruslav’s story as the book continues and he soon faces more and more challenges, including a mortal injury, a hanging, and forced religion. The latter is the most damaging to him as he is forced to give up violence, the one thing in life he is good at, to stay alive, which results in quite the existential crisis. Watching him try to fit all the unusual events occurring to him into his insights as a street thug proves to be entertaining and very relatable, as you understand just how much of a struggle each of his new experiences are for him. His coarse humour fits into this arc very well, and watching him swear at his new, inadvertent god and all the people of different backgrounds he is forced to deal with, makes for some very fun scenes. However, not all of Ruslav’s storyline is comedic, as Tchaikovsky loads in continued tragedy for him as well, that really shakes him, and the reader, to their core. The author seems to both love and hate Ruslav, and the resulting damage and development he goes through result in some of the most emotionally rich parts of City of Last Chances. I honestly am still surprised that Ruslav turned out to be such a great character, but he and the rest of the cast really make City of Last Chances an epic book, and I am really glad I got the opportunity to dive into their unique lives.
As with many of the larger fantasy books I tend to read, I chose to seek out the City of Last Chances audiobook format, which served as an outstanding way to enjoy this fantastic and elaborate book. This new Tchaikovsky audiobook is pretty long with a run time of just over 20 hours, and it did take me a little while to get through it, although it was very much worth the time. I always find that listening to an audiobook helps me to absorb more detail for some books, and this was particularly useful for City of Last Chances as Tchaikovsky has once again loaded his unique setting and captivating story with so many intricate elements. As such, I was really able to full appreciate the full complexity of the dark city of Ilmar and its many, desperate residents.
I was also extremely impressed with the voice work of narrator David Thorpe, who ensured that the listeners could full enjoy every single aspect of City of Last Chances. Thorpe, whose narration I have not had the pleasure of before, did a spectacular job here in City of Last Chances and I honestly enjoyed every second he spent telling this story. Not only has he got a great base voice that tells the main story at a clipped and exciting pace but he also provides a ton of impressive tones for all the characters in this book. Every one of City of Last Chances’ unique characters is given a particularly fitting voice that captures their personalities and really helps to convey to the reader some of their key points, such as Yasnic’s meekness, Ostravar’s arrogance, or Lemya’s unbridled idealism. Thorpe also comes up with several great accents that he uses to differentiate some of the different races and nationalities contained within the city, and I felt that this really helped to emphasise the cultural elements contained within the story. Overall, the City of Last Chances audiobooks is pretty damn spectacular, and I loved how the entire thing came together. I had so much fun listening to Thorpe’s great take on the characters, and this is easily the best way to enjoy this epic read.
City of Last Chances is a brilliant and wonderful novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky that I cannot start raving about. I quickly became enthralled the outstanding and compelling narrative that he pulled together throughout City of Last Chances, and his fantastic delivery, intriguing setting, and impressive characters all drew me in. This is easily one of the best books I have read so far in 2023 and it comes very highly recommended by The Unseen Library. I cannot wait to see what amazing book Tchaikovsky comes up with next, as if it is any where as good as City of Last Chances, I am going to love it.