A novel that doesn’t promise an entire trilogy? Be still our hearts. Edward Willett’s The Cityborn does fill that niche, but it’s a decent read, too.
Every sci-fi and fantasy novel out there these days seems like it has to be part of a trilogy. More rarely, it’s part of a larger series. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule — last month’s The Space Between the Stars comes to mind just off the top of my head — but there’s no denying that it’s a trend, for better or for worse. (There are arguments on both sides, and that’s for another day.) So, along comes Edward Willett’s The Cityborn. It’s a standalone sci-fi novel, so it scratches a couple of different itches right off the bat. But let’s dive a little deeper.
The idea of a standalone comes with a few problems. One of the key issues is that Willett has to do all his necessary worldbuilding in one book, which means that there are quite a few reveals along the way. It also means that he doesn’t have time to explore every single part of the City at the heart of the story. Granted, that’s not the worst thing in the world, but when the whole point is that this City is no longer shining and pristine, it would have been interesting to see how that’s happening on the different levels.
Make no mistake about it, though: The Cityborn has a fine, if relatively familiar, concept. The City itself has plenty of technology that its inhabitants have mostly forgotten to use. As a result, it’s failing. No one has seen its leader, the Captain (get used to a lot of words being capitalized), in centuries. Also, she needs a replacement. Two 20-year-olds have a special connection to the City, and whether or not they’re going to save it (and how) is basically the whole concept of the book here. What also matters is the information its characters have at any given time. Things don’t really unravel until the very end.
How the book decides to unravel them, though, does actually become interesting. The book slowly dangles more and more information in front of a reader quite well, and if you buy into the initial few concepts, you’ll probably buy into everything else that happens.
Where the book does get a little weird, though, is in its sexual politics. Within the first few pages, readers learn about a forced sterilization. There are a few threats of sexual assaults throughout. In general, there’s just a lot of talk about invasions of privacy, and so on and so forth. (Spoilers: most of the threatened or thought-about things don’t actually happen.) It just appears that Willett decided to mention them to … symbolize the corruption of the City? He gets his point across quite well without them, thanks to the aforementioned City’s state. As a result, these choices end up coming off as just some things thrown in to make things gritty and dark. This is not something I am fond of in any novel. The Cityborn is no exception.
If you’re thirsting for a sci-fi read and don’t want to get tangled up in having to remember plenty of details for more than a single book, The Cityborn should appeal to you. With this being peak summer vacation season, that’s not the worst thing in the world, right?