Charlie Jane Anders hurls her latest book, The City in the Middle of the Night, against the boundary of imagination with her strange, beautiful alien world. Anders re-maps modern English onto new science fiction concepts and creatures, and begins the novel with a fictional translator’s note alerting the read that the text of The City in the Middle of the Night will use well known creatures and terms in lieu of the alien, helping to ease the jump into a world wildly different from our own. In theory, this seems wild and confusing but in practice, Anders’ stylistic chocie helps the reader understand the strange lives led on the planet January. Crocodiles are definitely not crocodiles, I would not suggest trying to ride their cats, and most food is likely nothing like its terrestrial counterpart.
One side of January permanently faces the local star and one side faces entirely away. A thin band of land between “day” and “night” provides a barely hospitable patch for the human colonists. In this narrow band of life, humans struggle to regulate their sleep and wakefulness. When inadvertent revolutionary Sophie is banished into the bleak wilderness outside her city, her life is saved by the mysterious aliens who roam January’s surface and what she learns from them may change the planet’s society forever.
Time is a key theme of Anders’ novel—the human settlements visited by the two main characters, Sophie and Mouth, are defined by how they structure life around the endless dusk. Anders masterfully constructs both settings, using her protagonists’ reaction to the flow of time in each city to paint a different kind of claustrophobia. I never thought I would describe a book as painting a story entirely in different shades of anxiety, but Anders nails the feelings of claustrophobia, fear of acceptance, inferiority and loss of identity all in the span of 360 pages.
No character in the story is “likeable,” but all of them are incredibly relatable. The awkward relationship between Sophie and her best friend/love interest, Mouth’s aggressively territorial protection and ownership of her birth culture, and several other character specific conflicts are handled with tact and painful accuracy. My interest in continuing the story hinged completely on the intricate setpieces and the air of mystery surrounding the alien life on January—on both points, Anders overdelivers.
The City in the Middle of the Night does not end cleanly, and perhaps it’s fitting that a story so well grounded in realistic and relatable protagonists ends with such an unsatisfying tilt. In this novel, Anders has lovingly crafted a unique world, and finishes with a wild twist that left me endlessly interested in the next book of the series.