by Shannon Bond
I usually don’t read stories written in the first person present tense. It throws me off for some reason. If not done well, the character’s first-person perspective and tense changes boot me right out of the story. Holmberg, however, does not struggle with her craft. Her present-tense prose kept me turning pages from start to finish as the first-person point of view disappeared under her deft fingers.
The action scenes, which are many, had a sense of intimacy wrapped in present-tense urgency. Lark, her main character, has a constant yearning to belong and a need to escape her past, literally and psychologically. Lark’s complexity brings her close to the reader as we share her thoughts and emotions firsthand, in real-time. She makes us want to keep turning the page. Isn’t the goal of every storyteller to create characters we want to spend time with as they navigate the hazards of their world? As we follow Lark, we are treated to flashbacks of her past, expertly woven through the narrative. Each flashback gives us a new glimpse into her present and state of mind as she makes hard and sometimes foolish decisions. Holmberg trusts that we will get to know her characters implicitly through their behavior (and Lark’s thoughts and emotions).
This implicit technique leads to intimacy between us and the characters. Especially Lark, but also the supporting characters, such as a trollis (the term troll is derogatory) with a temper control issue. She’s thorny on the outside, but Lark, and subsequently the reader, can see and hope that she has a soft spot inside. And without giving away too much, I can’t move on without mentioning the stoic trollis who turns out to be deeply intellectual. Exploring these characters is one of the key ingredients that makes “The Hanging City” such a good story. And with the limited perspective of Lark to go on, our desire to know more rises as each page turns.
But we can’t talk about “The Hanging City” without talking about the rich world. Holmberg presents us with a deep history and a trollis society that repulses and intrigues at the same time. It’s a brutal and beautiful society based on some real-world scenarios, such as the caste system and the idea of racism and slavery, that resonated with me. And what about the world itself? What happened to make it so hot and uninhabitable above the bridge, outside the trollis city? What was the ancient civilization found in ruins really like? I have a soft spot for the abandoned and collapsed structures of humanity. History peeks out of Lark’s imagination as she learns more, but we never quite find the answers we seek. Like many great authors, Holmberg gives us just enough to spark our imaginations. All we know is that there is a once mighty city, now abandoned, a massive bridge that leads to it, and other intelligent creatures somewhere on the planet.
If there are any thoughts beyond praise, and this isn’t really a complaint, it is that the ending stutters with fits and starts before an abrupt halt. A climax would build, tension rising, and when it seemed about to crest, it would crash like a wave on the beach, ushering in a lull until the next bout of rising tension, not unlike the many endings in Lord of the Rings. And when the final words come, they seem abrupt, and the resolution slight, as if the story ran out of steam. Keep in mind that this is a minor critique of a remarkable story set in a rich world with deep characters.
If you have Kindle Select or a fall book-buying budget, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out “The Hanging City.”
You can find her at www.charlienholmberg.com.