The description of this book described it as being about a bomb squad that defuses magic weapons. How awesome does that sound? So much urban fantasy focuses on private-eye or police-style characters dealing with murders or disappearances. A magical bomb squad sounded like a nice change of pace.
And City of Broken was a change of pace. Just not a good one.
Debut author Mirah Bolender has clearly put a lot of work into her setting and magic system — you can tell, because she loves to go off on random bits of exposition about the city or the magic or the history. At times, this is endearing, you can really sense the eagerness of the author to share her creation with the world. But at other times, the book would have been much approved by a show versus tell approach. One memorable unnecessary detour into the denominations of money used in the city especially stood out to me.
But my biggest complaint about this book is that the main character Laura was, to me, completely unlikeable.
Now here’s the thing. When I call a character “unlikeable”, I don’t mean that I feel like I would dislike them if they were a real person I met in the real world. I mean that I utterly and completely disliked reading about them. I can enjoy books about people I would want nothing to do with in real life. The author just has to make them compelling. I found Laura the opposite of compelling — I found her repellent.
Why? Because it honestly felt to me like Laura didn’t like anything. She has her dream job, and all she does is complain about it and her boss. She doesn’t have any friends. She resents the aunt who has mostly raised her. She seems to find everything either boring or annoying. She struck me very much as the sort of New Adult protagonist who has a lot of growing to do, and maybe the author is setting up a story arc where she grows over the course of a series, but she didn’t grow enough in this first book for me to be willing to give her another chance.
For me, the biggest sticking point was how Laura treats a secondary character. At the start of the book, Laura is the only apprentice to her teacher Clae. They are “Sweepers”, the aforementioned magical bomb squad. All of Clae’s previous colleagues and past apprentices have died. The two of them are the only Sweepers in the city of Amicae, though other cities have more. Through the events of the book, Clae gets a second apprentice Okane. Clae and Laura rescue Okane from a rich family who had enslaved and abused him. Okane is quiet and unassuming, and Laura is utterly and completely jealous of him because he’s convinced she’s going to take her position. There’s no reason for her to think this, because there’s no rule saying that Clae can only have one apprentice or that only one person can succeed him, and Okane shows less aptitude for the job than Laura. Her apparent lack of sympathy for Okane’s difficult pass and her petty attitude towards him just felt incredibly immature. It would have been one thing if it had felt like they were mutually vying to be Clae’s favorite apprentice, but instead it felt like Okane was trying to adjust to a sudden change in lifestyle and a new job that he had some misgivings about, and Laura was just needlessly paranoid that he was going to usurp her.
There were lots of other things that stood out to me, in terms of inconsistent world building and a magic system that seemed really bizarre. Honestly, the whole thing struck me as feeling more like a self-published or small press book rather than something from Tor Books.
I suspect some readers will find this book works for them. The setting has an interesting feeling, a sort of urban semi-steampunk situation in a land full of city-states. The author has set up a world with a lot of room to grow and explore. I just don’t trust her to create characters that I actually want to read about.
Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced reader copy in return for my (perhaps brutally honest) opinion.