The Sable City – a review

I can’t remember how I found my way to Indies Unlimited but once there I was hooked. One of the features I liked the most was [and is] ‘Ed’s Casual Friday’, a weekly post written by M.Edward McNally. Witty and always beautifully written McNally’s articles made me wonder what kind of a writer he was when he was ‘at home’, slaving over a hot keyboard. After a little diligent searching I discovered that he writes fantasy. Yay! After sci-fi, fantasy is my next favourite genre so buying one of his books was a natural progression.

So which book did I buy and what did I think of it? The book was The Sable City, book 1 of The Norothian Cycle and I was so impressed with it that I will soon be buying book 2!

As a genre, Fantasy is a strange beast; when it’s done well it’s wonderful [think Robin Hobb, Tad Williams etc], however getting it right is not easy. Not only must the author create vivid characters who leap off the page and demand to be loved, or hated, those characters must also live in a world that has depth and a sense of solid reality to it. McNally has achieved both with The Sable City. The characters are well written and each has a past and little quirks that make them immediately recognizable. One of my favourites is a devil named Balan. Despite being one of the ‘villains’ of the piece his wit and sartorial elegance make his every appearance a joy to read. Tilda, the main character in the book is strong, honourable and tenacious yet at the same time believably female, a rarity amongst male authors. She grows as a person in response to the events of the book, as do the two male characters – Dugan and Zebulon – but the growth never seems forced, rather it is a seamless, natural process that you would expect from ‘real’ people. The less major characters also experience growth. None of them remain static and that is one of the things that makes the book such a pleasure to read.

A good story however, requires more than just good characters. A good story also requires a believable world for those characters to inhabit. That world has to have geography. It has to have climate. It has to have varied and interesting cultures. And it has to have history. In the real world everyone has a sense of the past, even those who have no interest in formal History. The past is where we came from. It not only tells us where we have been as a people or a race, it informs our present. In many ways history is what motivates a whole people so a story without history is like a painting with only the main features coloured in. McNally knows this and his world is rich in references to the past, making the reader feel that the present is just an extension of what came before. As it should be.

But what is The Sable City about? What is the story that pulls us along?

In essence The Sable City is the story of a quest. The quest begins in the island state of Miilark where the trader family of Deskata suddenly finds itself without a direct blood heir. The only Deskata left who could save the family was exiled years before so Captain Block is sent on a mission to try and find the exile and bring him home. Block chooses only a Guilder apprentice by the name of Matilda Lanai to help him as secrecy is paramount. And so the quest to find John Deskata begins. They do not have much to go on. They know that Deskata has brilliant green eyes, a family trait, but not much else. Along the way they meet a deserter from the Legionnaires called Dugan who seems to know where Deskata may have gone but he has his own agenda and the plot soon thickens with deceptions large and small that add an interesting element of  ‘who dunnit’ to the story. As the plot unfolds we are introduced to a colourful array of characters that includes a samurai from the Far West,  a bored Circle Mage, a Duchess incognito and a mysterious woman called Nesha Tarii who has a seductive effect on all the men she comes in contact with… but she is not what she seems. And then of course there are the dragons.

I could say more but that would be giving too much away so I will content myself with saying that all these strange characters are brought together by fate and their own personal quests in a mysterious city of black stone called Vod’ Adia but the ending is not something you will be able to predict. That is one of the things I liked most about the book. I like being surprised and I think you will too.

The only small criticism I have of The Sable City is that at times the dialogue feels too… modern. Or to be more exact, too familiar, as if the banter was happening between two people in present day New York or some other large city. It did not happen often but when it did I would lose that sense of being elsewhere, just for a moment or two. I know many people will consider this criticism to be nit-picking but for me it was a little disconcerting. Other than that The Sable City did not jar with typos or poor grammar or awkward phrasing. It was well written and well edited and the story flowed just the way a good story should.

I think I can honestly say that this is the first fantasy book I have read in a while that I enjoyed and it is definitely the first indie fantasy that I have finished with a warm sense of satisfaction. The Sable City is a good story and I am looking forward to returning to the world to learn more.  I recommend it to anyone who wants more from fantasy than just magic and battles.  There is magic and there are battles but there is also much, much more. You will not be disappointed.

About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

9 responses to “The Sable City – a review

  • acflory

    -grins- I read a similar discussion on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog a few months back to do with authenticity, especially in historical novels and it struck me that the two extremes are equally impossible – archaic Anglo-Saxon at one end and ‘yo ma man’ at the other 😀

    Finding the right balance is a minefield at any time but even more so with humour because you’re right, humour does not translate. Nonetheless the discussion is interesting because I’m sure it isn’t something most readers would ever think about.

    Nice getting the author’s perspective on these kinds of questions Ed.
    Cometh again-th!


  • Courtenay Bluebird

    Loved your review! Much like your follow-up review on the second book, you’ve covered all of the main points and given potential readers of “The Sable City” a good map to follow. I do have a question about the “familiarity” of the dialogue. I know you mentioned that the dialogue sounds too modern, but do you also think the dialogue veers towards clichéd language? (Clichés in dialogue are a huge problem, even for successful writers.)


    • acflory

      I’m not one of those people who hate clichés on principle. They are memes that encapsulate a great deal of meaning, meaning that everyone recognizes. That’s why they exist in the first place. That’s also why they can sometimes be incredibly powerful. However like everything else in this world I think they are a tool that should be used wisely.Too much is just lazy.

      In dialogue I believe a writer has to be true to whatever character is doing the talking. If I read something like “Yo mama…..” then it immediately conjures up a picture in my head. If it’s the right picture then well and good However if it’s the wrong picture and I know it’s wrong then I’m jarred out of the context.

      In Sable City some of the banter between characters conjures the wrong pictures for me. I know what the banter is supposed to show – that jokey male banter you might get between soldiers or something – but in the setting of a fantasy world that is more feudal than anything else it feels too modern. I have no idea how soldiers of that era /would/ banter but my gut tells me that it would be different.

      I personally find writing dialogue difficult with or without cliches 😦


      • medmcn

        It is something I thought about while writing, and it is particularly…what’s the word…weird, when writing dialogue for a fantasy book that would, in theory, all be spoken in an “invented” language. If for example, there is some sort of word play or pun (there’s a confusion over harebrained/hair-brained in one book), it only “works” because the joke is in English. It probably wouldn’t work if the joke was really in “Codian” (the language of the fictional empire in the books).

        For my purposes, I did probably go with a more “modern” sound to some of the dialogue, and comforted myself with the thought that *really* the literal language (if it existed) would be different than English, anyway. So I was trying more for tone than for *historical* accuracy in a fantasy world. It’s a hit-and-miss process that is never going to make every reader happy, and in any case, sometimes modern authors’ attempts to make something sound “olde tymey” can get a little annoying. They often wind up just throwing in some “thees” and “thous” interchangeably, and sprinkling some verbs ending in -st on top. 😉


  • medmcn

    Thanks very much, AC “Meeka” Flory. Made my day. 🙂


    • acflory

      You’re very welcome Ed. Good books are always a joy to review and the best part is that I know there is more happy reading to come! Keep writing coz I’m a fast reader 😉


  • lorddavidprosser

    You display such enthusiasm in your reviews that it’s hard not to like an author and a book before meeting either. I love the fact that you can nit-pick the faults so we know what to expect and that we get a broad outline of story without having the plot laid out on a plate before us.In short, I love reading the reviews almost as much as reading the books themselves just to see if I agree with you.
    As a person hopefully of wit and sartorial elegance I take great delight in signing myself


    • acflory

      -grins- You are most definitely a wit dear Malan and keep me on my toes. I’m terrified of what sartorial elegance may hit me if ever you choose to disagree – cravats at 20 paces?


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