THE SPLENDID CITY by Karen Heuler (BOOK REVIEW)
“How was your day?” Eleanor asked the cat when he walked in the door. She could see that he was miffed. He was always miffed.
“I shot someone again,” he said, sighing. He had to agree it was becoming a nasty habit.
“I do regret it.”
Welcome to Liberty, a state free from the constraints of the US government, a state run by its own President. At first glance Liberty looks like a pleasant place to live— regular parades are held, who doesn’t love a parade? Prizes are freely given, and the people walk around with a sense of contentment. Dig a little deeper, look behind the curtains, and you’ll see a state where water is rationed and charged at alarming rates, free speech could cost you a trip in a van never to be seen again, and automaton heads in the likeness of the President watch your every move.
The Splendid City by Karen Heuler, is an offbeat tale of witches, a deranged talking cat, and a thoughtful reflection on social injustices, all told through quick-witted prose. This is perhaps one of the quirkiest books I’ve read in a long time, a clever blend of dystopia, mystery and urban fantasy, which delivered a compelling read.
The story follows Eleanor, a witch who is sent to Liberty by her coven leader, Gloria, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Daria, a witch from another coven. Eleanor also must discover if Daria may be linked to the water shortages in Liberty. She isn’t sent alone though—meet Stan, the talking, extremely boastful and oh so darkly humorous cat. Stan used to be a man, but a past unpleasant incident with Eleanor caused her to use her powers to transform him. As punishment to them both, Gloria takes away much of Eleanor’s powers and will not restore them nor help turn Stan back into a man until both of them have learnt their lesson.
As despicable as Stan is, I have to admit he made me laugh at every turn. He’s a character who is deluded, he believes himself to be above everyone else, his intelligence is unmatched, he manipulates, lies, and is self-indulgent. Yet he’s also a character who loves spicy fish tacos, cream cakes, beer and can’t resist a box. The contrast between Stan’s inner thoughts, his feline appearance and his outward actions was immensely comical. At first glance he’s charming, but underneath we see how unhinged he truly is! Stan is one of those characters you just love to hate.
Our second main protagonist is not without her faults too though. Eleanor lacks empathy, she’s hot tempered, often understandably so but her rashness always leads her to further trouble. As we get further into the book we learn of Eleanor’s backstory and how her discovery of the witches’ coven finally led her to a place where her differences were seen as a gift, not a curse. Under tutelage of the entire coven, Eleanor trains in the art of magic, honing her powers and becoming a true witch in her own right. Gloria provided a home for misfits with extraordinary powers, for females to be as diverse and quirky as they like. The only problem was, Eleanor struggled to stick to the rules.
“She could feel the tension rising in the air. Everyone contributed to it, as if they were a massed beating heart. And then the van’s door opened, two arms reached out, grabbed him, and he was gone.”
Throughout Heuler delivers a slow burn plot which is riddled with philosophical ideas on feminism, the unhealthy side of social media, and those who have innate privilege. Heuler’s prose often reads like a stream of consciousness, with a small amount of ’head hopping’ and jumping from one thought to the next. Usually I would find this type of narrative style confusing, but in this case I found Hueler’s prose to be cleverly written. Many of her lines are food for thought—she represents social injustices in a stark way, shedding light on American gun crime, prejudice against minorities, misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Heuler also pokes fun at the government, particularly in the way she portrays the President of Liberty who allows atrocities such as kidnappings to take place, yet is still loved by the people. We clearly see the President keeps a firm hold on the city, his animatronic heads watching the citizens, spreading propaganda, weeding out traitors, all under the pretence that he is helping the people lead better lives. Liberty appears eerie in the way that people never question the oddities that occur there, not even when they are desperate for such a basic need as water. In a frightening way, Heuler’s Liberty state could so easily become a state in our world.
The Splendid City is not without its whimsical moments too—there are witches flying on brooms, and a cat on a treasure hunt. Heuler’s wonderful blend of quirkiness, humour and politics creates such a deliciously witchy read with a twist.
“This world of witches was different from anything she’d known. She had stumbled onto them, never having sought them out; they had found her. Little by little she began to yield…”
ARC provided by Caroline at Angry Robot Books. Thank you for the copy. All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
The Splendid City is out 14th June but you can pre-order here:
Angry Robot | Waterstones | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com