Relic Master: The Dark City by Catherine Fisher

Relic Master: The Dark City
Catherine Fisher
I was offered a copy of this book from the publisher at the same time they pitched a giveaway for the whole series on my blog. I’d never read Catherine Fisher before, but I had heard murmurings about Incarceron, and I remember a glowing review from the Book Smugglers. Intrigued by the premise and this praise for the author, I said yes. Although this book is out now, my review is of an ARC copy.
 
The Premise: Raffi is a teenager who lives on Anara, a world with seven moons. A long time ago, it is said, the Makers came from the sky, and made the seas, the salt and soil, the trees and the animals. They left a long time ago, but they left ancient relics with sublime powers behind on Anara. The Keepers are those who safeguard the relics, but twenty years ago, their Order was destroyed. Now those of them left are in hiding, while those in power, The Watch, continue to root them out. Raffi is an apprentice Keeper, learning magic under the tutelage of his gruff mentor, Galen. They have been careful for a long time, but recently Galen has been reckless and unhappy. Raffi is concerned when a man shows up at their secret hideout, asking for their help. Things don’t seem right, but Galen accepts the job anyway. This kicks off a journey that takes them far from home in search of a powerful relic that could save the world.  If they get to it before anyone else does.
 
My Thoughts: This is the type of story that just begins and lets the world building occur organically. People spoke of Keepers and Watchers and Makers without qualifying what they were, and I gleaned their meaning from the words themselves and the context. Often clues about the world come as quotes from religious texts and scholars of Anara that serve as placeholders between chapters. In order to review the book I had to at least explain what the Keepers and Watchers were, but I did leave a lot out so that people can figure out things on their own. Part of the charm of the story is the puzzle that is Anara, although this technique also has its drawbacks (I’ll come back to that later).
 
The Dark City is told in the third person but the focus is mostly on the teenager Raffi, occasionally switching focus to a Watcher that is following the two of them across Anara. My ARC was 372 pages, but I easily read the story in a few hours. What made this such a fast read was that the language is very simple and readable. The writing and the story’s focus primarily on adventure puts the story on a middle grade to young adult level. I think I could easily recommend this to my ten year old nephew and be fine, but an older teen (not to mention me), could also read this without feeling bored.
 
I think the simplicity of the language brings to mind the writing of Megan Whalen Turner, particularly in comparison to her book, The Thief, which also a “journeying in search of a special item” story. In terms of characters, The Dark City doesn’t have the same complexity though. It may be because the story has been broken up into four installments, but in The Dark City, we only begin to go beyond the surface of the main characters. By far the most complex is Galen, Raffi’s tutor, who is very obviously scarred by something that happened to him. Raffi is his worrying, cautious apprentice who we get the story from, but he’s a simpler to understand character. The Watcher is the third member of their group, and their character is one that gives us a glimpse of the other side and what the Watchers believe. There is an interesting dynamic once the Watcher shows up because of the web of lies and suspicion that results, but it never becomes truly diabolical.
 
I think that the story is more plot centric than it was character centric. And the plot surrounds the mystery of Anara. Throughout the story I wondered why the Watchers originally attacked the Order and the original Anaran rulers, and who the original Makers were. The Order of the Keepers could do magic, and Raffi does show magical ability throughout the story, but the relics that he and Galen safeguard seem awfully familiar. I am certain the relics were technological in nature, but Raffi and Galen treated them as powerful sources of magic. I was very curious about that – are these relics really advanced technology or magic? If it’s not magic, how is the magic that the Keepers can do (not to mention the magic that the race of Cat people that also live on Anara can do) explained? Can they be both? This is where the drawback in the storytelling comes in. I think that it is the intent to hold back information from the reader and to give small pieces of the puzzle as the series goes on, but it can be frustrating. I am used to having my world building established within the first book of a series, but in this series, it is the draw for continuing. A great device for reluctant readers (I also noticed that each chapter ended in a mini-cliffhanger, another technique for keeping a reader reading), but it can feel a little manipulative.
 
Overall: This is an entertaining adventure story that should appeal to young readers. I love stories that straddle both magic and technology in their world building so that really appealed to me, but I did feel a little frustrated that some information is held back about Anara. This is a technique works for getting reluctant readers into a story, and this is a book whose audience is younger than I am (I’d put this in a high MG to YA range), but I didn’t expect it to work on me too. I feel compelled to keep reading the series just to figure out what’s going on.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Charlotte’s Library – positive

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2 thoughts on “Relic Master: The Dark City by Catherine Fisher

    • I am going to have to go hunt them down I think. I’m seriously contemplating just getting them all and setting aside a block of time one weekend to read them. The technology or magic question is driving me crazy!

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