I almost didn’t read The City of the Middle of the Night because my previous experiences with Charlie Jane Anders – both with short fiction and with her novel All the Birds in the Sky – weren’t positive. Then I decided to challenge myself to read all the Hugo Award finalists in the Best Novel category, and I’m so glad I did; this book has some of the most interesting worldbuilding I’ve read in a while, character dynamics that deeply appeal to me, and writing so beautiful I could cry.
At its heart, this is a story about a toxic relationship between two women, the kind of toxic relationship queer women in a heteronormative society are intimately familiar with: the love for the popular, Straight best friend who claims to love you (though how is always left to interpretation, deliberately) but actually sees you as a pawn, as means to an end more than anything. It’s not a case that this book ended where it did, and the final confrontation wasn’t about the revolution or what will happen to Xiosphant. The City in the Middle of the Night is about Sophie and Bianca, what they feel for each other, why they are drawn to each other and why they chafe, always chafe in the end.
It’s a story about the importance of open-mindedness and acceptance, about how for some fighting for change is a way to help people thrive, while for others is only important as far as it gives them privilege, attention, power over others. It’s the negative of a love story, and yet there’s so much love in its pages, in the questions it raises, in the ending it chose.
Sophie and Bianca aren’t the only main characters. Half of this book is told in Mouth’s PoV, and I found those parts to be less compelling for a variety of reasons, the main one being how the supporting characters in it weren’t as well-drawn. Mouth’s and Alyssa’s relationship was an interesting foil to Sophie and Bianca’s, strained for different reasons but born from similarities between the two characters (though again, I didn’t feel it was as well-developed), and Mouth’s arc was a foil to Sophie’s. Sophie’s story is about knowledge as a bridge over misunderstanding, the importance of learning about the past, while Mouth’s was about knowledge as something that drags you down, and the need to let go of the past. I live for foils, and I thought this was really clever, because it’s true that a core part of being human is wondering how much of the past one can forgive or understand or let go. It’s often not easy to understand which between forgetting or deepening one’s understanding would help.
And, of course, Gelet society is a foil to humanity in that! It only makes sense for a book set on a tidally locked planet, half day and half night, to exist in mirrors and explore the gray between the ends of binaries, after all.
Now, let’s talk about the worldbuilding. Setting a book on a tidally locked planet is an incredibly cool concept to begin with, and the details made it even better, made it feel real, while never making anything difficult to grasp. We start the story in Xiosphant, the city in which Time has become a way to control the people through the idea of Circadianism: everyone has to do the same things at the same time. Everything is designed to make you feel like you’re running out of time, to make not wonder about the past so that you can’t talk about privilege and power being concentrated in certain groups, to make you not talk about what’s outside because the solutions that work for other countries could never work for Xiosphant, Xiosphant is special (this has a quote that is basically a parody American exceptionalism and that was my favorite moment). This book isn’t exactly subtle, but sometimes one needs to go for the throat. And this might be a horrible place, but the details about the many different kinds of currency, the shutters and the farmwheels… it was so fascinating to read.
Xiosphant’s foil is Argelo, the city that never sleeps, in which there’s always some kind of party going on, some kind of battle, sometimes both things at the same time, and everything is based on “freedom”, the freedom to do as one pleases, which usually includes trampling others and forming gangs to survive. The descriptions of the parties and locals in Argelo were breathtaking in all their extravagant details, and yet there was always that atmosphere of emptiness to it.
Both cities are dying, and have a lot in common – the violence, the lack of care and sense of community, the aversion to meaningful change – and the climate is going to destroy them in not much time, if everyone on the planet doesn’t start cooperating in some way. While reading this, especially the Argelo part, I kept thinking about how in a book that doesn’t grasp the dynamics of privilege, what privilege does to people (like, uh, most YA dystopians) Bianca would have been the heroine. I’m glad this is not that kind of book.
Argelo, Xiosphant and the City in the Middle of the Night (where the alien Gelet live) aren’t the only societies explored. We also get to know about the people in Mouth’s past, the Nomads, and their storyline had some really interesting parts, but again, like everything in Mouth’s storyline, I didn’t feel like the full implications of them were explored. When we have a storyline as well-rounded as Sophie’s, with a in-depth exploration of PTSD, of a toxic relationship and of an entire alien society, Mouth’s story just feels faded, even though I get why it was there.
I couldn’t end this review without talking about the writing, which I loved. For the descriptions, for how effective it was, for how much of this I highlighted. I understand why it’s polarizing, it keeps you at arm’s length from the characters. But, once you settle into it, it carries you in its flow like the visions of the Gelet, and it’s breathtaking.
My rating: ★★★★¾