“An object. Confused, he lifts the thing in his hands to get a closer look. Cool to the touch, possibly metallic, adorned with small lines and symbols that he doesn’t recognise. Heavier than you would imagine for something so small.”
This is taken from page 3 of The City Around the World, the debut novella from Elliot Harper, and it’s only the beginning of a series of terrifying adventures that befall the protagonist of the story, an unnamed, dirty man lurching from one high to the next, just trying to survive.
He lives in the slums, stuck forever outside the giant walled city of Equatorlis, and reading this book you get the sense that, before finding this object, the man’s days were all the same. Wake up, confused, hungover, on a come down. Find more drugs. Get high, pass out. Wake up, confused, hungover, on a come down. And repeat ad infinitum.
It’s unclear the actual setting of the story, though from various clues you can infer it’s potentially earth, in the distant future. The protagonist goes to see his friend, Tana, who has turned an abandoned supermarket into a library, shelves full of scavenged books.
He has a conversation with a dealer who talks to him about whales, as if they’re mythical creatures, lost to the ages. Though in this same conversation, the dealer talks about how time isn’t linear, how it’s a flat circle (think True Detective), and you begin to wonder if this story is set post-apocalypse, pre-apocalypse, or concurrent to one taking place in a different location.
The world Harper has built is vast, engaging, so alive and vibrant it’s impossible not to be fascinated with. From Pau Market, a place at once intriguing and dangerous, to the south, where indebted slaves pull buses without engines, fed enough water to keep them upright enough to earn money for their masters.
It isn’t a pleasant place, far from it; but it’s an intriguing place, one you have to keep reading about to try and garner more clues, to try and learn more about what’s going on. Harper feeds information sparingly, but gives just enough so as to keep you hooked, and make you want more.
Our protagonist also encounters the Brotherhood; proud supporters of The Great Wanderer, which is what passes for a god in this horrible civilisation. They’re your typical religious fanatics, and each time they’re encountered, no matter how trivial the meeting, it’s a cause for concern. Harper writes with such a sense of unease, of discomfort, that you’re truly drawn in to the protagonist’s sense of fear, of danger. The book keeps you on edge as it flies through events at a rapid pace, never once letting you pause for breath.
One of my favourite things about novellas is flying through them; I gobbled this one up in two sittings; it would have been one if life had not got in the way. I absolutely loved the story, loved the characters, loved trying to figure out the mystery of who everyone is, and what the hell it is they’re up to.
The book holds enough secrets to keep you guessing, and gives enough away to keep you wanting more. It’s weird fiction sci fi horror at it’s best, and I can’t wait for the next book from this emerging author.