The City in the Middle of the Night


Charlie Jane Anders


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

October 30, 2019

had some pretty high hopes for The City in the Middle of the Night - the world building sounded so neat - a tidally lock planet, where one side always faces the sun, the other side resides in perpetually freezing darkness, but between the two extremes is a narrow strip of land that is habitable by human colonizers. I was also intrigued because the novel got a lot of high praise, it was on the list of NPR best books of 2019, and the Amazon site displays its inclusion on a bunch of "best of" lists. I thought The City in the Middle of the Night was pretty good, but not great.

The tidally locked planet is called January. The major city of humanity is called Xiosphant. It is a regimented society governed by a remorseless tolling of bells - without a rotating planet to give day and night, the humans make due with artificial hours and days. In Xiosphant lives the heroine, Sophia. She is a bright but poor young woman attending the university. Incredibly, Sophia has been befriended by the brilliant, glamorous Bianca. Bianca is frustrated with the controlling government, she and her college friends talk of freedom and revolution. But the authoritarian government has spies and police everywhere. One day, the police come to arrest Bianca for a minor theft, but Sophia takes the rap for her beautiful friend. Much to Sophia's dismay, the police don't take her to jail, instead they march her right outside the city limits and leave her exposed to the frigid nightside, where she will freeze to death quickly. But before that fate can befall Sophia, she encounters some of the native animal life of the planet - huge furry monsters, with tentacles and claws - these are the fearsome "crocodiles". I was puzzled by the names the humans give to the native animals. Clearly, these beast don't have the slightest resemblance to an Earthly crocodile. Nor do the native "bison" sound like the creatures here on our home planet. I had a hard time imagining what these monsters actually looked like.

In a parallel thread in the novel, a team of smugglers arrive at the city of Xiosphant. The "Couriers" travel back and forth over the dangerous narrow strip of land between Xiosphant and Argelo, the other major human city on the planet. Traveling with the Couriers is Mouth, an aboriginal woman who has a scarred, violent past. Mouth is restless, always on the move. She is the last of her tribe, the rest were tragically wiped out. In Xiosphant, Mouth learns that the authoritarian rulers have a relic of her lost tribe, and she becomes determined to steal back her heritage.

A couple of things bothered me about this novel. The strip of land between ice and fire seems too thin to support many humans, let alone any kind of luxury. Yet in Argelo there is a decadent elite, who throw lavish parties with delicacies and booze that just shouldn't exist in such a tenuous environment. A giant tentacled squid rises up of the sea to attack the band of smugglers, and I wonder how could such a huge creature find enough to eat in such a tiny environment, bounded on one side by boiling steam and on the other by frozen landscape. I wondered how could an atmosphere even exist on this planet - on one side, the air would be heated until it broke down into its component atoms, while on the frozen side, the air would freeze solid and condense. If a native species created "atmosphere plants" to make breathable air - how did the natives breath before they made the plants?

The primary focus in the novel is on the relationship of the three young women, Bianca, Sophia and Mouth. I wish there had been more attention paid to the planet itself, though the natives do get their turn in the limelight in the later stages of the novel, it wasn't as much as I was hoping for. Overall, The City in the Middle of the Night was an interesting read, but I wouldn't call it compelling.