A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky
A City Dreaming is not so much a plotted novel as it is a series of stories set in modern New York City, centering around a character we know only as M, following him roughly through one year’s turning of the seasons. M is a wizard of some power, yet one who is completely unlike the typical literary magical being.
M is enigmatic. He’s low key and scruffy, a cigarette smoking, hard drinking – heck, hard living drifter, unconcerned with power, wealth or fame. He flies under the radar, although everyone in the supernatural layer of New York knows who he is. He is not loyal to either the White Queen or the Red Queen (the rival heads of the main magical factions operating in the city), but he is well thought of and used by both for odd jobs, and those times when they don’t to get their hands dirty. He has a cadre of friends and acquaintances, but at any given time they may be as willing to kill him as help him. Yet they are always willing to party with him, or bring him along for an adventure or to execute a vendetta.
Each chapter finds M in a different situation. It might be somewhat benign, such as when, initiated by his itchy feet, he decides to go for a walk. At other times the action is more dire, such as when he is pressed into attending a fancy soiree where he comes face to face with his nemesis, or when he seeks his own anger induced revenge, only to find that the focus of his rage is something quite unexpected. In each situation, we travel through times and places and incidences and meet beings that are bizarre, off beat, risky, and unable to be defended by the rational mind.
Throughout the book, we are treated to M’s sardonic wit, and his wry take on life. No matter what he’s dragged into, he’s really just trying to get by, to stay on the good side of the ubiquitous Management (the one thing that is bigger than the city), and to live his life on his own indifferent terms. Yet for all of his detached demeanor, M really does a deep moral compass when pressed. He’s not so much an anti-hero as he is a heroic being that just wants to be left to his own devices.
And the writing is glorious. The sudden turn of phrase, the different way of seeing the world, are both unlooked for and wholly appropriate.
M stopped into the Crown’s Commons towards the start of October, just before that thing with the house – you remember – and he found Alice in a more than unusually desperate state of disarray.
“Everything all right today, Alice?” M asked, because that was what one asked in these situations, as one grabs a paper towel when a drink is spilled.
She sighed and looked around and dripped down onto the counter. “You have a girlfriend, M?”
“Not such as I’d admit to.”
“Keep it that way,” she said, her heart so tender you could have spread it over white bread.
That kind of evocative yet slightly off-kilter prose is not too effusive so as to inundate the reader, but occurs off-handedly often enough to feel … well, magical. And yet totally unique. Like M. Like this book.