Echo City is a vast and ancient city in the middle of a huge, deadly desert. Its inhabitants have been isolated for thousands upon thousands of years and have come to believe that the city is actually all of the world, because venturing out into the surrounding desert is certain death. During its immense history, the city has renewed itself countless times by building new layers on top of the old, not like layers of sediment but more like floors in a building, with the old "echoes" of its past slowly decaying in underground vaults.
Peer Nadawa is a political dissident, living in exile in an isolated prison district in the city, recuperating from the shock and torture she endured in the hands of the Marcellans, Echo City's religious rulers. After all, before her capture, Peer was a member of the outlawed Watchers, who believe that there's more to the world than just Echo City. Gorham, her former lover, is still a Watcher fighting against the theocracy of the Marcellans and its military arm, the Scarlet Blades. His new lover is Nadielle, a woman living beneath the city and creating new, mutated forms of life in a process called "chopping." Finally, there's Nophel, a disfigured servant of the Marcellans, under the protection of Dane Marcellan, a degenerate member of the ruling class.
This disparate group of characters is about to go through a shocking change in their lives, because early on in the story, Peer is witness to the impossible: a stranger walks out of the bone-strewn and poisonous desert wastes and arrives on the city's outskirts. She quickly realizes that she has to bring the visitor, who is the first person ever to survive exposure to the desert, to her former colleagues in the Watchers, despite the fact that he appears to have lost most of his memory...
So begins Echo City, the newest dark fantasy novel by Tim Lebbon -- and "dark" is definitely an appropriate term for this sometimes disturbing story. A feeling of hopelessness and loss permeates the entire book, from the ancient city, resting on countless millennia of isolated history and mercilessly ruled by a corrupt theocracy, to most of its characters who are, almost without exception, defined by what they have lost rather than what they are. Echo City is a gritty and at times unpleasantly dark novel that might remind some readers, at least in atmosphere, of China Miéville's BAS-LAG novels: Echo City somewhat resembles New Crobuzon, with its underground political dissidents fighting the heavy-handed leadership, not to mention the similarity between the "chopped" and the Remade.
There are many more differences than similarities, though, and Echo City is a unique and impressive fantasy setting. Tim Lebbon excels in his ability to make the city seem like a real place, with several districts that have a unique atmosphere, including some that are ruled by vicious criminal gangs and, maybe most strangely, one that appears to house several huge domes in which an entire mysterious race has been isolated for centuries. There's also the fact that the entire city's history is literally buried underground to be explored, Journey to the Center of the Earth-style (although I found it almost impossible to suspend disbelief to such an extent that I could really accept those huge vaults remaining upright for thousands of years). There are also some seriously bizarre mutated creatures, such as the Bellowers and the Scopes, that take Echo City to a whole new level of weirdness. In terms of setting, this novel is a huge and memorable success that made me wish the book included a map and some illustrations.
Unfortunately, there are some issues with pacing. The second half of Echo City contains a few chapters that barely advance the story, making it drag a bit towards the end. Trimming these down would have improved the reading experience tremendously. Some of the characters could have used more depth and back story, including main characters Peer and Gorham, but fortunately this is balanced out by some truly fascinating ones such as Norphel and especially Nadielle. Finally, the whole concept of "chopping" (creating strangely modified humans and monsters) is introduced by briefly showing a chopped prostitute: she has three legs and two sets of genitalia, allowing her to make twice the income. Given the wonderfully innovative things Tim Lebbon does with "chopping" later on and for most of the novel, I felt that using a "twin-muffed whore" to introduce the concept was unnecessarily shocking.
Regardless, Echo City is a memorable dark fantasy novel with an impressively rich setting that could well be developed further in a prequel. Readers who (like me) sought out this novel based on the strength of the short story "The Deification of Dal Bamore" (in the recent Swords & Dark Sorcery anthology) will, despite some minor issues, probably not be disappointed.