The Last City by Nina D’Aleo: Unbridled Imagination makes for a Stunning Mash-Up Debut

The Last City from Australian author Nina D’Aleo flew below my radar until I chanced upon a promo about the second book that came out in 2013, Forgotten City. A quick search got me intrigued and hooked onto the premise. A netgalley request for both books followed but it still took me quite some weeks before I cracked it open. 

Blade Runner Meets Perdido Street Station? Quite an irresistible premise and a lofty one to match up to I must say. Truths be told, I haven’t read the Phillip K Dick book, but yes, have seen the move. And Perdido Street Station by the weird genius China Meiville is the only “AUTOGRAPHED” authentic paperback version of a Fantasy book that I’ve in my bookshelf (sadly still untouched in terms of reading! Had met him in person in Bangalore a couple of years back) But The Last City does something wholly new and original in terms of a stunning mash up of noire crime, science fiction and fantasy. A layer of wholly unrestrained science-fictional imagination sandwiched with another layer of stunning fantasy world building and a fat patty of noire crime thriller in between.  That probably begins to describe what Nina D’Aleo has done with her book.

Nina has done what a lot of new authors would be dreaming of. Rewrite the rules of the genre with a mash-up that pushes the boundaries and refuses to be straightjacketed into a certain “type” of fantasy writing. It’s a bold vision – unabashed and unapologetic in its originality and imagination, deftly executed in a lyrical prose that brings alive the last city of Scorpia with world building of tantalizing depths that leaves you gasping for more.

With a cover to die for, a riveting story that combines some really twisted concepts together to come up a winner and some really big names backing it up on the blogosphere, I’m surprised it has not gone onto win some of the big awards yet. It’s a flawless debut that sets your imagination on fire.  Nina drops you right into the middle of the action through the eyes of the raw rookie on her first assignment, Silho Brabel who forms the one of the main protagonists of the story. You’re drawn right in with the vivid description of the murky rapidly deteriorating underbelly of the city of Scorpia with the fascinating creepy cross-breeds – “Tangelan Burrowers from the fallen city of Mayhem with their giant-razor-clawed hands and Rainbow-skinned Ohiri Fen who can morph items into different shapes. “  The decrepit grungy city running to the seams with such bizarre populace is brought alive effortlessly by Nina’s writing that sucks you right from the first chapter. At the shockingly gruesome crime scene is where Silho teams up with the darkly brooding Commander Kane (the superhero with the mysterious allure), the bumbling genius imp-breed Eli, the irascible authority-defying strong woman Diega an ‘electrosmith’ of the Ohiri Fen race , the quiet Ar Antarian Jude of the Royal Blood who’s got his own secrets to hide. You know right from the word go – put in five such characters in any setting and sparks are going to crackle and fly. The interactions and snappy dialogs between the team – especially the bumbling Eli who’s got “speech impediment” issues & his new friend, the convicted Ev’r Keets, a witch from the deserts, makes for some really entertaining lighter moments of the book. 

Once you get past the bizarre imagery and the twisted crooked races that inhabit this city, we settle down for a racy plot of a crime-thriller that gets surprisingly deep and pulls you in. The writings pretty solid, immersive and flowing and it never gets heavy-handed despite the myriad new forms that Nina’s thought and penned down. That for me was a winner. The best part about her prose is that the heavy-handed doses of detail don’t overwhelm you. The frequent manner of soul-searching where a character delves into the heave-hos of thier past mistakes and the present cataclysm that they are plunged into kinda of does play havoc with the pacing but not much to take the foot off the pedal. Action’s aplenty and with a crime scene splashed full of blood and gory innards being the starting setting of a story – you know that this noire-mystery/thriller is going to be nose-diving into an action-packed finale. 

Minor quibbles in terms of the plot being a little simplistic are quickly dealt with as we race towards the climax. A lot is going on here – with minor subplots that the different Tracker teams get into. And I did have frequent black-outs similar to what most of the characters suffer coming back to consciousness in some new exotic locale. This jars with the narrative as I get stuck for a while figuring what the hell happened before this to whom. But it all ties together well.

Weird in the good sense (‘Mievelle-esque’ sense) with a world that is unique and tantalizing and some unforgettable characters whom we cannot wait to see again, Nina D’Aleo delivers a stunning debut with the Last City. It’s definitely worth all the hype it’s garnered and am hoping the Forgotten City ups the bar in terms of the Weird and Fantastical. Four Stars!


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