‘City’ Feels Like it Leaves off in the ‘Middle’

There are few things more frustrating than getting to the end of a book and seeing its loose ends fluttering in the breeze, and realizing that you have to read—or worse, wait for—the sequel to find out what happens next.

But one of those things is getting to the end of a book like that and finding out the author has no plans for a sequel.

For a variety of reasons that I’ll go into in probably a weird amount of depth below, I feel The City in the Middle of the Night needs a sequel and doesn’t stand as successfully on its own as it could as a piece of a larger work. In the chord progression of narrative, it feels like The City in the Middle of the Night left us hanging on a V7 instead of resolving down to that familiar old I (or i, or vi—I’m not picky!).

Come on, Charlie Jane Anders. Just tell us what happens next. I’m begging you.

Sophie is a college student enamored with her roommate, Bianca, and embroiled in a burgeoning revolution on the dying planet of January. When she takes the fall for Bianca’s actions, she is promptly paraded through the streets and dumped over the side of the city and into eternal night on the tidally locked planet. What should have been a death sentence becomes something far stranger when Sophie is rescued by one of the “crocodiles,” the fierce beasts that roam the frozen half of the planet. Sophie slips back into the city but strengthens her bond with the creatures as the years go by.

Meanwhile, a smuggler called Mouth (whose people were killed off before she received a name of her own) strikes a deal with Bianca and her band of revolutionaries in an effort to retrieve an artifact belonging to her lost tribe. The plan goes off the rails, but it does so in a way that reunites Sophie with Bianca—and puts them on the run with Mouth and her fellow smugglers. After crossing the dangerous wilds of the liminal area, Bianca, Sophie, and Mouth’s relationships all shift in unexpected ways. As elated as Sophie is to be reunited with Bianca, it quickly becomes clear that they have very different endgames in mind, and Bianca’s requires exploiting Sophie’s relationship with the crocodiles, and Sophie has to choose between them.

I’m going to take more of a writer’s perspective on this because a) that is my perspective and b) I think it’s the easiest way to explain why I felt so frustrated after reaching The End. Minor spoilers ahead.

I felt like the individual character arcs of the two main characters are clear. Sophie starts out unsure of herself and ashamed of her background, and during the course of the book finds new confidence in herself in part because of what she’s lost and in part because of the relationship she forms with the crocodiles. Watching her try to force herself back into the old shape of her relationship with Bianca despite both of them having changed significantly since their roommate days is at once tragic and relatable, and it’s refreshing to find such an honestly toxic relationship depicted, especially between two women.

We meet Mouth as she’s desperately searching for any trace of her people and feel her consuming need for absolution in her survivor’s guilt. Meeting a member of her tribe who left before the tribe was killed helps her unpack some of her baggage, and getting more perspective on who she is as a person rather than a foil helps to further lighten her load. What she learns from the crocodiles upends everything she thought she knew about where she came from, but when we leave her, she is well on her way to reconciling that with the version of herself she decides to be.

Bianca, who is shown only through the lenses of the two point-of-view characters, also has a strong, believable character arc. She starts out as a privileged revolutionary. By the time she meets up with Mouth, she’s let her privilege settle into bitterness. That, in turn, reveals the harder portions of herself in ways that grate evocatively with the way Sophie has changed since their early days together.

A rendering of one of the book’s cities. Doesn’t it look cool? Don’t you just want to SPEND MORE TIME THERE?

But the way those character arcs weave through the plot feels more like Book One than it does a standalone work. Without giving away too much, all three characters—particularly Sophie and Bianca—find themselves on a precipice to a new conflict that so much of The City in the Middle of the Night spent setting up. Character arcs rose and fell, yes, but the book ends with more turmoil than ever. While that says something to a degree about the danger of rash revolutions upending the delicate inner-workings of complex systems (a bad system, we find, is better than no system at all), it also feels like a new problem to be solved. A new question to be answered. A new conflict to be resolved. Also, it turns out the planet is dying, so that’s a problem that seems like it should be addressed.

I like endings that suggest characters keep on keepin’ on in a way that gives them as much growth and excitement and fulfillment as they got during the exciting events of the book I just read. I like feeling like I’m peering in on a glimpse of a person rather than holding the entirety of a creature’s purpose for being dreamt up in my hands. But the events hinted at as The City in the Middle of the Night closed its figurative gates to me made everything that came before feel like a prelude. If this were the first of two or more books, then it’s brilliant and I cannot wait to read more. If this is a standalone book, then it is brilliant but utterly frustrating.

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