November 27, 2023

Review: A Stranger in the Citadel

A Stranger in the Citadel A Stranger in the Citadel by Tobias S. Buckell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was a bit disappointing, and the reason for that is the sketchy worldbuilding. It's a takeoff of Fahrenheit 451 set in the far future, and a very weird far future at that. It starts out with a fantasy feel, but clues are gradually dropped to make the reader realize that this is a story of humanity separated from its home planet, placed in some sort of dystopian "preserve" where all their needs are taken care long as they give up literacy and reading.

What bugs me about this setup is that it's never fully explained. The reader doesn't know who put humanity there, or what "there" even is....there's a scene where the two protagonists climb up to the "rim of the world," and look over the edge through the clouds at a fist-sized Earth far below. Which almost sounds like some sort of Dyson sphere encircling the planet? Except that would cut off sunlight from Earth, and it would be dead.

I understand the background and worldbuilding is not the focus of this story. This is a tale of what happens to humanity when their stories and knowledge are taken away from them and they are given a life with no needs or struggles (except that humanity, being what it is, starts separating into the have, the have-nots, the privileged rulers and the downtrodden ruled anyway). The second main protagonist, Ishmael (I kept waiting for him to say, "Call me Ishmael," but the author showed a bit of restraint), is the titular "Stranger in the Citadel," the librarian and gatherer of old forgotten knowledge whose existence is forbidden. He is captured and brought to the city of Ninetha, and presented to its ruler, the Lord Musketer. His youngest daughter, Lilith, is the main protagonist and narrator, the person who at first believes wholeheartedly in the gods' orders of "You shall not suffer a librarian to live," but undergoes a painful awakening.

Which is all well and good, and Lilith undergoes a nice character arc. The problem for me is without sufficient worldbuilding to provide context for the story, it kind of fell flat. The "archangel" the characters end up battling at the climax (which sounded like some sort of librarian-hunter android), who has pursued Ishmael and Lilith throughout the book, provides a few clues that only create more frustrating questions. The story is also extremely fast-paced, dialogue-heavy and description-light, which is appropriate for the Audible Original version it was first created as. But I wish that when it was made into a print version, the author had slowed down and expanded the background so the story would make more sense.

As it is, there are glimmers of something interesting, but the story does not go into the depth necessary to bring it out. Which is too bad, as I think that could have made for a better book.

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