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Walter Jon Williams
HarperCollins, 342 pages

Walter J. Williams
Walter J. Williams (aka Walter Jon Williams) is the author of Knight Moves (1985), Hardwired (1986), Days of Atonement (1991), the Nebula nominee Metropolitan (1995) and its sequel, City on Fire, and the Drake Maijstral Series (The Crown Jewels, 1987, House of Shards, 1988, and Rock of Ages, 1995) among other books. At his site you'll find a complete bibliography and sample chapters.

Walter J. Williams Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Rift
SF Site Review: Metropolitan

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

In Metropolitan, Walter Jon Williams creates a bizarre techno-fantasy world -- a sort of a Gotham City planet encrusted in urban sprawl. Magic fuels this world, but the magic (called "plasm") is channeled through wires and conduits, like electricity, and controlled by a giant utility company. Rich people can afford plasm. Poor people can only dream... or get fantastically lucky, like the heroine, and discover an untapped plasm source (a "glory hole") that the Authority doesn't know about.

Aiah works in the bowels of the Authority's bureaucracy, in a pointless Job which she feels nonetheless lucky to have since she's a "Barkazil" -- an ethnic minority in the Jaspeeri city state. Though she's clever enough to keep her mouth shut when she stumbles on the glory hole, she isn't sure how to sell the plasm she's found without getting caught. Then she hits on the idea of selling it to Constantin, a famous ruling-class exile from Cheloki. Constantin tried to overthrow the corrupt Cheloki government and the Operation (organized crime), provoking a civil war which he lost.

Williams has created a complex world and plot and he successfully weaves the details into his narrative without resorting to any awkward contrivances. His descriptions are excellent, and his characters are strong, especially some of the minor ones such as Aiah's stupid prating mother, and her tough survivor grandmother. The pacing is also very tight, with no slow spots, except perhaps for a couple of long self-justifying speeches by Constantin about the nature of power and necessity of bloodshed.

Why, then, did I ultimately find this book unsatisfying?

After two readings and a lot of thought I reached the following conclusions. First, I couldn't get emotionally attached to any of the people in this book. Aiah is credibly drawn, but seems just a little flat, and she's not a sympathetic character. For instance, it's hard to believe that she really cares about the deaths that she eventually causes. Her internal dialogues about responsibility come across as shallow excuses. Similarly, Constantin is conceited, arrogant and self-righteous. Aiah, as a young and naive woman, might credibly be taken in by him, but the reader will probably have a hard time caring whether they win his war or not.

The second frustrating aspect to the novel is the many plot twists and characters which go nowhere. Aiah makes a series of increasingly significant mistakes which the reader might reasonably assume to have plot consequences, but which never show any result. Important characters are introduced, expanded on, and then disappear. I was left with the disconcerting impression that the end of the novel had been changed or significantly cut, leaving all sorts of loose ends dangling in a book which otherwise seems well-crafted.

Nonetheless, this novel is worth reading. Williams uses a modern style (including narrative in the present tense) but he's skilled enough to pull it off without awkwardness.

Copyright © 2001 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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