Review: The Infernal City by Greg Keyes

The Infernal City by Greg Keyes
The Infernal City by Greg Keyes

The Infernal City: An Elder Scrolls Novel
Greg Keyes
Del Rey, 2009

Forty years after the Oblivion crisis a strange floating city appears over the oceans of Tamriel and begins a long journey towards the continent of Morrowind.  Swept up in its wake is the youthful and alchemically inclined Annaig and her long time Argonian friend Mere-Glim.  The two find themselves drawn into the strange ecology of the floating city Umbriel as it leaves destruction in its wake.  Drawn by Annaig’s magical plea for help is the world-famous hero Prince Attrebus who suddenly discovers some hard truths about himself and his friends.  Thrown into the mix is a hardened dunmer somehow tied to the Daedric Prince Azura.

There are two starting points from which one can look at The Infernal City: as a fan of the Elder Scrolls world or as someone new to the Elder Scrolls world.  Despite my actually having never finished either of the recent Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion or Morrowind,  I would still count myself the former.  I have a fairly solid geographical picture of the Elder Scrolls landscape and a firm knowledge of the various races that inhabit it.  While I didn’t read every tome I stumbled across in either game I have at least a passing familiarity with some of the lore and history surrounding the game.  All of which definitely added to my enjoyment of the novel since I have an established working knowledge of the world.

For me, at least, this is unabashedly good thing and I thought that The Infernal City did a wonderful of job of highlighting the juxtaposition of typical medieval fantasy with twisted oddities that makes the Elder Scrolls world so enjoyable.  The Elder Scrolls have always been fantastic at crafting a unique feel and the elements that Keyes explores here, particularly the city of Umbriel, its inhabitants, and its inner workings have a wonderfully original feel and chock-full of twisted somewhat unhinged ideas.  Unfortunately, for readers not already acquainted with The Elder Scrolls world, The Infernal City might not be the best choice of reads.  While I found the original elements of The Infernal City, particularly the characters and the titular city, to be well thought out and explained quite nicely there is a certain lack of detail or explanation involved when more familiar Elder Scrolls elements show up.

Perhaps part of the problem is the novel’s scant size.  In around 300 pages the novel covers around 4 character perspectives.  One of those perspectives, that of an imperial secret agent, seems somewhat superfluous to the main plot of the novel itself.  I rather liked the chapters to feature the secret agent as in a few small strokes Keyes managed to paint a fascinating character who I wanted to know more about but his chapters don’t really dovetail into the main plot.  Though they do add a bit of background intrigue to what is happening elsewhere in the story they feel more like a tangent then anything else.  Keyes’ ability to craft believable characters is in full force throughout the rest of the novel and the relationship between Annaig and Mere-Glim is touching and forms a solid foundations for their actions while the inner and outer conflicts of Prince Attrebus are both heartbreaking and thrill inducing; the confrontation with some soldiers turned bandits was particularly entertaining.

Unfortunately we only really get half a novel.  There is literally no resolution at the end of The Infernal City and we are left with a rather abrupt and unsatisfying ending.   While I enjoyed reading The Infernal City a lot of that enjoyment comes with my own familiarity with The Elder Scrolls world and even that knowledge doesn’t alleviate my disappointment over the novel’s ending.  If you’re an Elder Scrolls fan looking for your next fix while waiting for the distant fifth Elder Scrolls game then by all means give The Infernal City a try.  Non-fans, especially interested in the setting, might want to steer clear as the novels serves as poor introduction to the setting; it isn’t a bad read by any means but one with a few too many problems for me to recommend whole heartedly to the every day fantasy reader.

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