Warner Holme Review: A Stranger in the Citadel

  • A Stranger in the Citadel by Tobias S. Buckell (Tachyon, 2023)

Review by Warner Holme: Set in a world with sharp class divides and deeply buried secrets, this book provides a variety of fascinating looks at a strange world especially terrifying to readers.

Lilith is the daughter of the Lord Musketeer, and also a trained guard under the auspices of the much respected Kira. Yet a man is caught, the first visitor in many decades and he has brought the forbidden to this land in the form of books. As a result this stranger, calling himself Ishmael, is to be sentenced to death. Lilith, while curious about this, reveals more than she intends to Kira and sets off a personally catastrophic chain of events.

Rather than a fantasy or alternate world, this novel is very decidedly post-apocalyptic, albeit very distantly. References, obvious and not, to cultural touchstones of today and the past couple centuries are scattered throughout the story. Major and minor pop cultural touchstones, whether people or stories, are brought up dozens of times, some of the mass as rather key elements and others merely in passing. All of them are twisted noticeably, even ones as well known as creation myths having blended over whatever timespan has passed.

Little details early on pay off throughout the story, such as the complete absence of a mother for Lilith, referencing not only to the mythological nature of the name but also the idea there is something rather wrong with her father. A variety of terminology that is a religious or political is sprinkled about in various settlements, with the many different ways that it has drifted over time helping to illustrate the strangeness of this world. These require less explanation, and lend fairly well to the themes about the risks of illiteracy and an oral tradition. Nonetheless, the way that the book seems to avoid answering questions definitely feels slightly unsatisfying after an otherwise very well constructed book.

Very few answers come at the end of this book, and pretty much every piece of discovery relates to lessons learned within a human lifetime or two. Questions about the apocalyptic events of the past, while interesting, remain unanswered even in the final pages. What answers one does get about the current setting are obvious enough as early as halfway through the book, and even when such entities as the archangel appear later they do nothing to provide further clarity.

By a similar token the book is practically advertising itself as intended for a series, ending with the current threat taken out but the lead outright planning to continue her adventures. Combined with the lack of answers to virtually any questions involving this world, it very much feels like baiting rather than an open ending on the part of the author.

There is an entertaining and adventurous plot, with many wonderful twists and oddities happening throughout. Movements and style of setting might leave a reader looking for other post-apocalyptic stories, like Vampire Hunter D rather than Shannara or Deathlands. It is so post-apocalyptic one is left with only hints of the motivations of anyone involved, yet treats these questions as too prominent in the plot to justify the complete lack of explanations. Curious parties can definitely look this book up and are very likely to enjoy it, and the very fact it leans so into wanting a sequel suggests it might cover over some of the holes certain readers would find in it at a later date.

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