After five strong secondary world fantasy novels, this is a change of direction for Daniel Polansky. It’s firmly set in a modern New York of hipsters and craft beers, but also one where the supernatural is very real. There are pirates on the Gowanus Canal, a subway ride through the circles of Hell, and goblin markets where you can buy your heart’s desire. The sense of place is one of the strengths of the book. We see it all, from Wall Street financier luxury to grubby dive bars. Our hero is the almost nameless M, a magician without any visible means of support who nevertheless has a knack for navigating the city and its denizens to his advantage. If he’s between homes, an apartment sitting gig will open up, if he’s thirsty someone will buy him a drink. His insouciant cockiness puts me in mind of no one so much as John Constantine. In fact, there’s a vaguely edgy, vaguely hip quality to the whole book that’s reminiscent of mid 90s Vertigo comics.
It’s an engaging read, but it’s quite lightweight. I enjoyed it a lot while I was reading it, but I’m not sure how long it will linger in the mind. The lack of gravity is emphasised by the structure. It’s more a series of vignettes, episodic adventures of M and his friends, than it is a complete novel. There is a loosely overarching story of two rival magical leaders, but it’s mostly background stuff until the end. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Polansky had been writing these stories as palate cleaning diversions between his other novels and has now lashed them together as his next book. That might be a good way to approach reading it, taking a couple of stories at a time and then breaking for something else before picking it up again.
A City Dreaming is a fun and enjoyable book, just don’t expect it to change your life.