Title: The City in the Lake
Author: Rachel Neumeier
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Afred A. Knopf
Publication Date: June 2008 (original) / March 2011 (reprint)
Hardcover & Paperback: 304 Pages
THE KINGDOM’S HEART is the City. The City’s heart is the King. The King’s heart is the Prince. The Prince is missing.
Ever since the Prince disappeared, nothing has been right in the Kingdom. Something has disturbed the strange, old magic that whispers around its borders . . . something cunning and powerful. And the disturbance extends to the farthest reaches of the Kingdom, including the idyllic village where Timou is learning to be a mage under her father’s tutelage.
When Timou’s father journeys to the City to help look for the Prince, but never returns, Timou senses that the disturbance in the Kingdom is linked to her—and to the undiscovered heritage of the mother she never knew. She must leave her village, even if it means confronting powers greater than her own, even though what she finds may challenge everything she knows. Even if it means leaving love behind.
This breathtaking first novel spins a web of magic, bravery, and the power of love.
How did we get this book: Review Copies from the author
Why did we read this book: Thea has read and loved Rachel Neumeier’s work (see the recent review of the outstanding The Floating Islands), and both of us were intrigued by the synopsis for this re-release. Having been generously provided with review copies from the author, we decided that we simply *had* to do a joint review.
Thea: I’ve read two books by Rachel Neumeier prior to picking up The City and the Lake, and I can attest to her skill as a storyteller, especially in the fantasy arena. But Ms. Neumeier’s excellent The Floating Islands and Lord of the Changing Winds have got NOTHING on The City in the Lake. I have to admit, I’m not crazy about either cover for the book, but my goodness is the story within jaw-droppingly awesome. Not only is The City in the Lake the best book I’ve read from Rachel Neumeier to date, it’s also one of the best fantasy novels (YA or otherwise) that I’ve read in a long time. I loved this book.
Ana: Thea has been raving about Rachel Neumeier’s books for a while now and I was in tenterhooks to finally try one and decided that City in the Lake was a good place to start and OH MY GOD, I was so not prepared for how awesome this book is. Prose, setting, story, characters, everything is top notch and I too loved this book.
On the Plot:
Thea: The Kingdom’s heart is the City. The City’s heart is the King. In the strange city on the lake, old and powerful magic unites the kingdom and keeps it hale and strong. The Bastard, named Neill and the eldest son of the ruling King, has always known that his role in the kingdom is one relegated to the sidelines. In a younger time, the King was seduced by a beautiful and mysterious woman who gave birth to Neill and disappeared from the kingdom. When the King eventually married and his wife, the Queen, bore a healthy, strong son, Neill quickly become known as simply The Bastard. Despite his title, Neill has never been resentful of his younger half-brother Cassiel – like everyone else in the kingdom, The Bastard loves Cassiel. When the prince goes missing one day after a hunt with his friends, Neill is called upon by his angry father and distraught stepmother to find the errant crown heir, but to no avail. Without the heir present, the kingdom is without its heart and begins to suffer – life grinds to a slow halt, animals and even humans are born dead. The curse spreads to the furthest reaches of the kingdom, where a young girl named Timou lives in a small village with her powerful mage father, Kapoen. When Kapoen leaves the village to seek the cause of the stillbirths and does not return, Timou fears the worst, and sets out on the path to the City at the heart of the kingdom to find him. Here, at the City above the Lake, Timou and The Bastard’s destinies collide. A great evil lurks in the City, and Timou and Neill hold the key to the Kingdom’s salvation, but also its undoing…
I absolutely adored The City in the Lake for so many reasons, from its wonderful worldbuilding to its sweeping prose. From a storytelling perspective, The City in the Lake is a dark and lushly evocative fairy tale of a novel, with a greedy sorceress, ancient magic, and powerful creatures that are neither good nor evil but rather part of the overall balance of forces that comprise this strange and wondrous kingdom. There are many different levels to the plot, as the story alternates between three characters – Lord Bastard, Timou, and Jonas – and each of these characters plays a pivotal role in the ultimate conclusion of the novel. In the City, Neill struggles with the distrust that springs up around him (as many accuse him of attempting to steal the throne for himself and suspect him of orchestrating his brother’s disappearance). On her father’s trail, Timou must find her own strength and travel through an oppressive, haunted wood to find her heart’s true desire. And following Timou, a haunted young man named Jonas struggles with the nightmares that plague him, and must decide whether or not to go after his unrequited love. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but on every level of the narrative, The City in the Lake works beautifully.
On the negative side, the kingdom and its many different dimensions may be a little confusing for newer readers of fantasy, and perhaps some readers will be turned off by the metaphysical aspects of this book (particularly by the book’s climactic scenes). But not me. I loved The City in the Lake in all its luminous abstractness. Plus, with writing this poetic, lush and evocative, I can hardly complain. Rachel Neumeier’s writing in this book is reminiscent of Juliet Marillier and Patricia McKillip – two fantasy authors whom I love and hold in the highest regard.
Ana: I have to agree with everything that Thea says. The City in the Lake is a wonderful, original fairytale in terms of story whilst having a distinct traditional feel with regards to its prose. Plot-wise, it follows three distinct characters, each on their own journeys and all of them are beautifully executed to the point where I can’t tell which was my favourite but perhaps that point is moot since the three storylines converge in the end. What is the most striking aspect of the novel is how it effectively combines those parallel, personal narratives with the overarching story of a Kingdom that has existed for a long, long time and in different dimensions as well (sort of). Not only that, but the story has elements of Quest, of Vengeance, of Romance, of Adventure and with different aspects of Magic and History and it never, ever feels like it is too much because it is all so beautiful and truly magical. It might sound as though I am committing the unforgivable sin of being too cheesy but really, the story is beautiful even when it is sad and dark.
On the Characters:
Thea: As with the storytelling and plot, the characters in The City in the Lake also shine, from the three protagonists, to the solid cast of secondary characters. When Ana and I started reading this book, there were flurries of emails back and forth about how much we loved The Bastard, Timou and Jonas, and this unabashed love for the characters sustained until the end of the book. Each of these protagonists have their own depths, backstories and formative experiences, although some of them overlap. I loved the absentee mother theme that connects both Neill and Timou, as well as the strength of familial bonds and responsibilities that unite them. As for Jonas, his own dark past (and darker future) are the stuff of excellent fantasy. Even the secondary characters, of the King, Prince, and Queen, and other members of the court, are beautifully textured and have believable motivations (especially the Queen in her feelings towards Neill).
As for The Villain – well, this character is pretty nasty, but not simply evil for evil’s sake (which would be rather disappointing). Rather, this villain is greedy for power, spoiled with it, and never understanding nor caring for the consequences of their actions. And the villain’s unflinchingness? I thought it was awesome (I mean, scary but also awesome).1 Not to mention, there’s room for more in this same universe. The villain comes to an end off-screen, which leaves me wondering as to how safe the kingdom really is. What of the much-alluded to but never present Deserisien? Could he make a possible appearance at some point in the future? For a villain as far-thinking as the one in The City in the Lake, I’m certain there might be a contingency plan for failure in the works. I am greedy and I want MORE.
Ana: I can’t begin to express how much I loved the characters – protagonists and secondary – of this book and how much their story arcs were amazing. I mean, it plays with every single one of my favourite tropes. There we have the determined heroine who wants to find her father, the wronged yet goodhearted young man, the hero who sets out after his love and meets with the Unexpected. And then each of them has to overcome obstacles both internal and external. I loved how Timou spend her whole life living by her father’s lessons and then when push comes to shove she had to make her own decisions as to whether those lessons would work for her or not; similarly with The Bastard who lived under a whole plethora of expectations and had to decide whether to meet them or surpass them. Whereas both Timou and the Bastard had to deal very real, concrete problems (even as they were surrounded by magic) , Jonas’ quest takes him on a much more supernatural path (which had real and concrete repercussions) which as Thea says, is stuff of excellent fantasy. I was reminded at every turn of Juliet Marillier’s fantasy novels which is the highest form of compliment I can think of and I demand MOARS as well.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: I cannot believe I had not heard of this book earlier, and it’s a damn shame how unacknowledged it is. From opening sentence to bittersweet farewell, I loved The City in the Lake and recommend it to readers young and old alike. For fans of Juliet Marillier, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, and Sharon Shinn, looking for that next fix of luscious, romantic, flawless fantasy? Look no further – Rachel Neumeier’s The City in the Lake is for you. Easily, one of the best books I have read in 2011 and in the running for my year end top 10.
Ana: Word, Thea. I can’t believe I never heard about this book before and I wish more people would read it. I don’t think I have read a YA Fantasy as good as this in ages and wouldn’t be surprised if it made my top 10 as well.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
The City is beautiful at sunset, almost as beautiful as the Lake itself. The waters of the Lake run with crimson and flame-orange and deep lavender as the sun sinks beyond its farther shore, colors pouring across the water all the way to Tiger Bridge. At that moment the exotic lilies carved into the Bridge, crumbling with age, look whole and alive in the moving light and cerulean shadows.
But after darkness falls, it will be the tigers of the Bridge that look real and alive. They shake themselves out of stone and come down from their pedestals, the lambent fires of sunset in their eyes, to stalk on great velvet paws through the night—so it is said.
At the moment between sunset and dark, the wind off the Lake sometimes dies and the air becomes utterly still. If that pause lasts long enough, it is said, the water becomes a mirror in which a man may see his true face reflected, as well as the reflection of the eternal City. Few would linger at Tiger Bridge to look into the still Lake at that moment, both because truth can be a dangerous thing and because of the tigers that wake out of stone in the night. But that is the story that people in the City tell.
That, at least, is a true story. The Bastard, who did not fear velvet-footed hunters, came to Tiger Bridge sometimes to watch the sun set and look into the glass-still Lake. The face he saw in the water was indeed not the face the simple mirror in his Palace apartments reflected. The Bastard could not have explained even to himself where, precisely, the difference lay. But it was to try to find out that he came to Tiger Bridge.
The Bastard had a name: Neill. He had a place in the court as elder brother to Prince Cassiel and son of Drustan, who was King. But he was not the son of Ellis, the Queen. The Bastard’s mother had been a woman who had wandered into the City and the King’s bed from some far country beyond the shores of the Lake, beyond the farthest borders of the Kingdom. She had given her son her fine ivory skin, her ash-pale hair, and her dark secretive eyes. And she had given him a heritage that ran outside the bounds of the Kingdom, a mixed blessing at best.
The woman had lived in the City for a season, for a year—long enough to carry and bear the King’s son. Then she had walked out of the City. Though I go, this child will keep my presence always near you, she had said to the King, laying the baby in his hands—so the tale went. May he flourish in this Kingdom.
Possibly the King did not appreciate reminders of his dalliance, especially once he married his Queen. It was well known he did not favor his illegitimate first-born son. Still, if he did not love Neill, he acknowledged him and kept him close to power. Kings have no need to be ashamed of the evidence of their indiscretions as other men may, and more than one royal bastard has grown up to rule when all the children born on the right side of the blanket have been sickly, or girls. From childhood, then, the court had called the boy Lord Neill to his face with careful deference, and, behind his back, sometimes with no less respect, Lord Bastard.
When the Bastard was twelve years old, the true Prince was born, merry and bold even as a baby and beloved by all the City. By that time, folk in both the Palace and the City had learned well the habit of respect toward his elder half brother. The Bastard, even as a child, had a way of keeping his own secrets while finding out the secrets of others, and although he spoke softly, he never forgot a slight. So people said in the court. And that story, too, was true.
The Bastard watched the sun sink below the Lake, sending fire across the water, and waited for the wind to die. But the quiet on this night did not last long enough for the waves to grow still, and so the Lake did not turn into a mirror. The Bastard was, however, philosophical about small disappointments. He turned away from the Bridge, pausing for a brief moment to study the stone tigers before walking away. They were still stone under his gaze. After he turned his head . . . who knew what they might become? The Bastard walked back across the City to the Palace. Once he might have heard the soft pad of a great cat, but though he stopped in the street to look patiently into the dark for one shadow softer-footed and more dangerous than others to separate itself from the night, he saw nothing.
Thea: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Ana: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Broken by Susan Jane Bigelow
In honor of the old hardcover version and the new paperback reprint, TWO lucky winners will have the chance to win either the old or the new version of The City in the Lake! The contest is open to participants in the US and Canada only, and will run until Saturday, March 19, 2011 at 11:59 PM (PST). In order to enter, all you have to do is leave a comment here letting us know who is your favorite YA fantasy heroine! Multiple entries and/or duplicate comments will be automatically disqualified. Good luck!
- I apologize for the very cloak and dagger commentary but truly, you don’t want to be spoiled ↩