REVIEW: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
Dear Charlie Jane Anders,
This book takes place on a January, a tidally locked planet, meaning that one side of the planet always faces the sun and on the other side it’s always dark. In the small temperate zone where night and day meet lies Xiosphant, a city of people descended from human colonists.
Losing track of time is literally a crime in Xiosphant. Curfews are strictly enforced and shutters must be up or down at an exact time. “Timefulness” is fervently adhered to by the vast majority of people. This practice compensates for the absence for natural signals of the approach of day or night but it also supports an oppressive regime.
Sophie, a dark-skinned girl from the poor side of town, has managed to gain admission to the gymnasium, an exclusive academy attended by light-skinned and privileged kids. Sophie’s roommate, Bianca, comes from an exalted family and is sure to someday reach a position in the city’s upper echelons. Sophie, shy and unassuming, hangs on Bianca’s every word, partly due to Bianca’s charisma, partly because Sophie believes Bianca is destined to be a leader and partly because Sophie is in love with her.
Bianca flirts with the idea of overthrowing the Xiosphanti government. She invites Sophie to come to a meeting of pro-revolution young people. On the way there Bianca steals food coupons on a lark. When the police interrupt the meeting to arrest the culprit, Sophie moves the food coupons into her own pocket so that Bianca’s bright future won’t be tarnished.
Bianca is devastated and guilt-stricken by Sophie’s arrest. The police drag Sophie to the city gates and push her past the dark side of Xiosphant into January’s night side and then lock the gate behind her. It’s a death sentence and a cruel one; no human is known to have survived the extreme cold of night.
But Sophie is rescued unexpectedly by a “crocodile,” an alien being. Or rather, a native of January; it’s the human colonists who are the true aliens on this planet. Rose, as Sophie later names her, is not remotely like a crocodile; that’s just the derogatory name that humans have given her species. The “crocodiles” on January are known to be vicious and deadly and occasionally they are hunted for food. But Rose saves Sophie and communicates with her via sensations and images transmitted through touch.
Sophie learns that the Gelet, as she comes to call Rose and others of her species, are sentient and intelligent; that they have a sophisticated society in a hidden metropolis, a city in the middle of the night. Rose keeps Sophie warm and in the morning Sophie is able to sneak back into Xiosphant.
Sophie finds shelter and a job at an unusual establishment her late mother frequented, a restaurant that customers visit for its calm atmosphere. It’s a place where one can, if only briefly, leave timefulness behind. Even though Sophie starts to feel safer she must hide and she occasionally relives the nightmarish police arrest in panic attacks. It’s her fear of the police that keeps her from risking a visit to Bianca’s well-lit part of town to tell her friend that she survived.
Sophie also meets up Rose in secret. Rose provides her with a bracelet that is a kind of homing beacon and can signal to Sophie that the Gelet are nearby. Sophie tries to repay Rose in small ways. Eventually Rose reveals something Sophie has no idea how to help with: the Gelet’s young ones are suffering. Acid rains have injured them and will, unless prevented, continue to.
Sophie’s first person, present-tense narration is the dominant viewpoint in the book but another viewpoint is interspersed with it, that of Mouth, a hardened, even brutish woman. Mouth’s sections are narrated in third person and past tense. Mouth has lived on the road most of her life. As a child, Mouth was raised by the Citizens, a nomadic sect that was wiped out. Now she’s part of a band of smugglers, the Resourceful Couriers. Her membership in the Resourceful Couriers allows her to continue living a nomad’s life.
The morose Mouth has a sunnier companion in Alyssa, another of the Couriers. Their devotion each other shows in their small and quickly resolved conflicts and in their willingness to take risks for one another’s safety.
Things change for the worse when, during the latest of the Resourceful Couriers’ brief stays in Xiosphant, Mouth learns that the Invention, the repository of her lost people’s culture and knowledge, is held in a vault in the Xiosphanti palace. That knowledge is anathema to her and she decides to steal the Invention back. To pull off the heist Mouth befriends Bianca’s group of revolutionaries. By this time Bianca is grief-stricken, dejected and morose over Sophie’s “death,” and therefore easy for Mouth to manipulate. When Sophie–aware that Mouth is a smuggler–sneaks a look at Bianca from afar, she realizes Mouth may be taking advantage of her friend.
The planned revolution goes awry and Bianca escapes thanks to Sophie’s quick thinking. That doesn’t prevent Bianca from feeling bitter, hurt and angry that Sophie let her suffer grief and guilt. Sophie, shy and introverted even in the best of times, doesn’t have the words to explain how PTSD prevented her from doing that.
To evade the authorities, Sophie and Bianca must travel with Mouth, Alyssa and the other Couriers to the only other human settlement on January, the city of Argelo. There is bad blood between Sophie, Bianca and Mouth. The journey is fraught with danger but it strengthens Sophie to a degree. Mouth is filled with acrid disappointment. She will never have another chance to reclaim the Invention.
Will the Couriers survive the dangerous journey to Argelo? Will Mouth recover from the blow that the loss of the Invention has dealt her? Can Sophie and Bianca’s friendship be repaired? Will the Gelet and the humans cooperate to save January, or is bridging the two cultures a hopeless cause?
This book has won award nominations and accolades, including being named a Hugo finalist for 2019. By the time I’d picked it up I had read four of that year’s other five Hugo-nominated books (Gideon the Ninth, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Middlegame and A Memory Called Empire). The beginning of The City in the Middle of the Night engaged me more than the openings of any of those four and I was surprised to see had the book had the lowest grade average (3.53 stars) on Goodreads of any of them. By the time I finished reading the book, I understood why.
There were a number of things I loved about the novel in the beginning and some of them disappeared as the book progressed or else went off the rails. One was the way of life in Xiosphant. I was fascinated by the Xiosphanti obsession with timefulness, the way their culture required them to rush from work to home before shutters-down, be out within minutes of shutters-up, and to sleep and wake on precise schedules. This was not a concept I’ve come across before.
The journey of the Resourceful Couriers to Argelo was also strong—exciting and fraught with dangers. It brought home just how close day and night were on January and also how dangerous. Day would sear to death anyone who ventured into it and the cold of night was equally inhospitable to human beings.
At around the 40% mark, though, the characters arrived in another location and unfortunately this environment was a lot less imaginative than the way of life in Xiosphant or the landscape the Resourceful Couriers had traveled.
I ran into significant problems with the plot in the second half of the book, too.
I also didn’t like the direction the plot involving the Gelet took. It was interesting to learn about their culture along with Sophie but the rest of that story thread dissatisfied me.
From the way Xiosphant and the other cities were described, they seemed more like small towns than actual cities but every once in a while a traveling distance or some other description contradicted that impression. I was startled anew (more than once) by the realization that these communities were supposed to be city-sized despite my inability to visualize them that way.
The book begins with a “Translator’s Note” that informs the reader that it is a “serious attempt at a clean translation” into “Peak English.” “Where the settlers on January chose to adopt archaic Earth terms for common items, along with flora and fauna, I have attempted to render this into Peak English as seamlessly as possible.” Despite these assertions, seams are apparent, as when roast pheasant is described as having scales and webbed feet, bison segmented, furry armor, or a piano is made of tin.
I liked how these mistranslations served as occasional reminders that January was even more distant than our planet, culture and time period than the story otherwise suggested. That even the attempt at translating Sophie and Mouth’s stories was faulty indicated that the narrative could not be entirely trusted and I liked that too.
Another thing I liked was the portrayal of January. I was unfamiliar with the concept of a tidally-locked planet (my husband explained to me that the moon is tidally locked and that helped me visualize January). I had never imagined what life on that kind of planet might be like and that aspect of the book was fascinating.
The POV structure was also handled well. The switch back and forth from Sophie’s first person, present tense narration to Mouth’s third person, past tense perspective was disorienting but in an engaging way. It has a telescoping effect because Sophie’s viewpoint was immediate and therefore I experienced everything right there with her, while Mouth had a more distant perspective, and toggling back and forth between them made the book more interesting.
The alternating access to both characters, each from a different vantage point and a different place in time, served the story by making frequent reorientation necessary and reminding me of the subjectivity of each individual’s experiences. As it turns out, subjectivity is one of the themes of the book. The POV styles also suited the characters. Sophie was trusting, Mouth cynical, so it made sense that things that what Sophie experienced with immediacy Mouth would choose to keep some distance from.
Ultimately, The City in the Middle of the Night failed to live up to its great beginning. It took a dissatisfying direction at around the 40% point and never recovered. Grade: C.