The City in the Middle of the Night
By Charlie Jane Anders
Published 2019 by Tor
Humanity managed to escape the dying Earth and colonize a single planet. Sounds great but January was not the Eden they were hoping for. January is tidally locked so one side always faces its star, the small population of humans eek out a quite literal marginal existence along the border between the instantly fatal sunlight and the lethal cold of the dark side. Generations after first landfall, infighting and misfortune has scattered the population who are slowly losing their technological civilization and their ability to survive. Against this backdrop, The City in the Middle of the Night follows two POV characters as they struggle to survive.
And I hate them both.
Sophie is a naive moon-child who discovers how to talk to some of the indigenous lifeforms, which aren't quite the dumb animals that the humans assume. She spends a large amount of her free time pining for her friend/one-sided crush Bianca, who the reader can instantly tell is bad news.
Mouth is a kick-ass punk girl, the last of her tribe of scavenger/trader/hippies that use to roam the land. Now she is a smuggler and one woman army. She spends all her time moping about her dead tribe and the fact that they never gave her a proper name.
Mouth and Sophie eventually find themselves traveling together. They don't really like each other (something I can completely understand) so they have to mope in alternate chapters.
A lot of stuff happens in The City in the Middle of the Night which should be exciting. There is a perilous journey between the two major human settlements (with pirates!), attacks by alien creatures, clashes between gangs of humans, lots of sneaking around avoiding patrols, etc. But without likable characters, I found I couldn't really care what happened.
That said, there is a lot I did like about The City in the Middle of the Night. The setting of January is great, the aliens are neat, and the Circadian Restoration that rules one of the human cities is my new favorite dystopian regime. Chuck in some genuinely interesting things to say about how culture and history bind people, and little bit of colonial angst and you have what should be a modern classic.
But this novel turned out not to be to my taste at all.
I think what really annoyed me most about The City in the Middle of the Night (apart from the main characters) is that it is unsubtle. The book is filled with contrasting dualities. January is either deadly hot or deadly cold, the two human cities are a fascist dictatorship and a libertarian party town run by gangsters. The humans are warlike and shortsighted, the non-human population are peaceful and constructive. Sophie is a milksop, Mouth is smashes faces. Again and again the book sets up these contrasts until my eyes were rolling. It gives the story a feeling of forced depth, allowing me to dislike it on many levels.
Your high-school literature teacher would probably love a book report on it. This is not praise.
One last thing, and this is a spoiler. The City in the Middle of the Night ends at a very odd place in the story, before what would normally be considered the final resolution of the plot. I am not sure whether this a genius-level move by a confident author who has completed the part of the story they wanted to tell, or merely irritating. We know how everything turns out, since the introduction tells us what happens but we never get to see all the tees crossed and the bad guys thrown down. It is a startling technique and I am still not sure what to make of it.
If I can look past the main characters, I am forced to concede that The City in the Middle of the Night might be a clever book that I personally do not like. Or it may be an interesting failure that I personally do not like. This review has turned out very negative, so lets go with the former.