Title: The Splendid City
Author: Karen Heuler
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication date: June 14, 2022
Genre: Urban Fantasy
One Sentence Summary: After accidentally turning Stan into a cat, witch-in-training Eleanor is sent to the new country of Liberty with Stan in tow to help find a missing witch, who might have something to do with the strange water shortage in Liberty.
The Splendid City presents an interesting social commentary using the backdrop of Liberty, which is the former state of Texas, where misinformation is rife and a witch and a cat are on different hunts, one for a missing witch and one for treasure, that inevitably have them crossing paths. The characters, Eleanor and Stan, were both deeply flawed and not completely redeemable or even very much likable, but Liberty was a fascinatingly strange place. Eleanor’s story felt like it wandered a little too much, but I enjoyed Stan’s story and, especially, how Stan adapted to doing things as a cat instead of as a human. But the entire middle dragged on for entirely too long. Still, the social commentary was interesting despite keeping more to a surface level.
Texas has seceded and renamed itself Liberty, where the president ostensibly wants to make everyone happy so constantly asks their opinion via strange animatronic heads. But, underneath, there’s a serious water shortage and a missing witch. When New Yorker witch-in-training Eleanor accidentally turns her irritating jerk of a co-worker, Stan, into a cat, her coven leader punishes her by limiting her powers and sending Eleanor and Stan to Liberty to find the witch. But they quickly get more than they bargained for when a treasure hunt piques Stan’s interest and there might be a connection between the missing witch and the water shortage.
The Splendid City caught my attention right away when it mentioned there’s a water shortage. Considering I live in California where we’re in various degrees of drought, reading about a water shortage kind of felt up my alley. Then there’s magic and a cat and, really, it’s so hard to resist a book with a cat in it. I had thought it would be a fun social commentary sort of story, but it ended up feeling a little simplistic despite the number of issues it touched on and the whole middle felt dragged out.
The Splendid City tells the stories of Eleanor and Stan, covering their relationship before they were sent to Liberty and what happened to them after they reached Liberty. They were both deeply flawed people, and not necessarily people I’d feel sympathetic to. Eleanor felt like she thought she should be more important than everyone else, which quickly grated on my nerves. Her better-than-you attitude carried all through the novel, though I think she learned a few good lessons by the end, so it was easier to soften towards her a little. Stan, on the other hand, was a jerk through and through. He had some strange delusions and ideas and, if I were Eleanor, I’d have a nice collection of restraining orders. I don’t think he was meant to be likable, but he was certainly amusing as a cat. All in all, though, both of them felt generally flat with little else to describe them. I did enjoy just how deeply flawed they were and how well it worked with the story, but they were also equal degrees annoying.
As for the story, both Eleanor and Stan are given story lines that nicely intersected, though, by the end I couldn’t figure out if it felt more contrived or more a happy accident that just happened to work out. Eleanor’s story felt a little slow and involved what almost felt like pointless traveling around the area. For half the story, she felt like she was just wandering around, meeting the lone witch left in the area, in her search for the missing witch. If it was meant to be a mystery, it didn’t work very well. The second half was a little more interesting, but it also felt like it wouldn’t have happened without an event that might very well not have happened under different circumstances. It also, overall, seemed to not be the major story line of the book. That honor felt like it belonged to Stan with his treasure hunt. I enjoyed how doggedly Stan pursued it. He got himself involved in quite some interesting things and always seemed to have some forward progress, even when it felt like he was just making things up. Overall, I felt Stan told more of the actual story than Eleanor did.
I do feel the social commentary was there, but I don’t think it really went into anything beyond a surface level. We see the effects of people speaking their minds, the effects of people being allowed to carry around guns (one of the interesting points in the description is that Stan has a penchant for shooting people, but this rarely actually happened), and the effects of misinformation. I was quite amused that it was Texas that decided to secede, and I liked that this version of it felt at least somewhat plausible. It was interesting to see certain consequences of behavior and how the terror of it was twisted into a more positive light. Liberty is riddled with misinformation and manipulation. It was interesting, but the ending left me with no sense of what was going to happen next as things felt a little too convenient. But the author touched on many, many topics, mostly in a more passing way. In the second part, the reader is taken back in time to before Eleanor turned Stan into a cat and we get a long interlude about her training and her relationship with Stan and this thing Stan introduces her where the point is to ask and write inflammatory things. It was amusing to see so many things mentioned, but there’s nothing beyond that, and definitely little rumination on any of it by the characters.
Liberty itself was interesting, and probably the strongest part of the book. Texas has seceded and renamed itself with its own president who lives in a castle. I didn’t get a strong sense of place, but the workings of the city Eleanor and Stan are in was well-thought out. The animatronic heads that regularly interacted with the citizens was a nice touch. It was both strange and interesting, and they clearly had consequences, though they were buried under amusing frequent parades to make the populace happy. I wish there had been more digging into how Liberty operates and a little more from what the people think, but I did enjoy how much Liberty was fleshed out and just how incredulous it all was.
Overall, I felt The Splendid City was a little simplistic in terms of the story. Eleanor’s hunt relied on a key event that could have been hit or miss. Stan’s story was only possible with Stan being Stan. There weren’t too many layers to this, making it a relatively quick read that required little thought. The whole second part did drag for me, though. It felt overly long and stretched out. It detailed Eleanor’s training, which wasn’t as interesting as other witchy trainings I’ve read, as well as her working relationship with Stan, which ended up feeling more creepy than anything else. While I enjoyed the first and last parts, the second part felt like a miss to me and I wish it had either been taken out or removed as it just went on too long.
The Splendid City was a fun social commentary, but it lacked depth. The characters were not entirely likable, though the minor characters were fun, sweet, and caring, for the most part. I very much enjoyed Eleanor’s coven. But Eleanor and Stan kind of felt made for each other, and the fact that Stan was a cat trying to do human things was just a lot of fun. The story, though, felt a little lean and the whole middle part dragged. But it was still an amusing read and I did find myself a little tickled by the social commentary.
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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
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