Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Mar 9th, 2020, 12:17 am

TITLE: The Wind City
AUTHOR: Summer Wigmore
GENRE: Urban Fantasy, Mythology and Folklore
PUBLISHED: November 20, 2013


Urban fantasy is one of my favourite genres. I’ve loved reading about mythology and folklore since my mother introduced me to Greek mythology while I was lying in a hospital bed, sick with dengue; since then I’ve consumed as many stories as I possibly can about the mythology and folklore of different cultures from all around the world - and I’ve done most of that learning through urban fantasy. It would be better if I could pick up the more academic treatises, but they’re difficult to find, and some are a pain to read.

Up until recently, though, urban fantasy writers didn’t play with a lot of mythologies besides Greco-Roman and Celtic. That’s changing now, thankfully, as more and more writers from much more diverse backgrounds and from different media get into the genre and incorporate myth and folklore from their own cultures, from Nigerian (Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch series), to Navajo (Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World series), to Filipino (Trese series by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo). Sure, finding the “original” stories often requires Googling (and even then what’s found on the Internet is so often incomplete, and must be taken with a grain of salt), but the extra work is worth it because of the way it opens up entire horizons of narrative to read about, creating a world that’s more than just Athena and the Morrigan.

This is why I was intrigued by Summer Wigmore’s The Wind City, and why I chose to pick it up. Maori mythology and folklore was something I was familiar with, but as a part of Polynesian myth as a whole, not as an entity unto itself. Fortunately, Wigmore’s book serves as a great entry point into that particular mythology, albeit a flawed one.

The Wind City takes its title from Wellington, New Zealand: the windiest city in the world, and the novel’s setting. On a seemingly ordinary day, a fey-looking woman searching for love encounters a man on a bus, and does something with his brain that does not agree with him at all. From that moment, a series of seemingly unrelated events begins to come together and coalesce, and three people - Saint, Tony, and Steffan - learn that the myths and legends they heard as children might be a bit more real than they ever imagined.

As I’ve mentioned, the first thing that drew me to this novel was the promise of Maori mythology, and in that regard, The Wind City delivers in spades. Many supernatural entities, or iwi atua as they call themselves, make appearances in the story, some as named characters that actively participate in the plot and interact with the main characters, and others that are described but not named. Of course, familiarity with Maori myths and legends will go a long way towards comprehending who and what these entities are, but even if a reader has only minimal knowledge, as I did, they are still interesting to read about.

Or I suppose I can’t say that my knowledge is all that minimal, given that Philippine mythology and folklore shares some roots with Maori mythology and folklore. Take the following excerpt, for example:
He was balanced easily on a pile of boxes she’d stacked in the back. There was water pooled around him, for some reason, and he’d taken her nets out and was playing with them, twisting at the knots. His fingers were long and thin, and his nails were long and curved and sharp. He wasn’t human.

He blinked at her blandly and gave a lazy smile, all teeth. Jagged and sharp and too-white, like a shark’s. …

...he was battered and rangy and had blue skin and sharpish eyes and claimed to have swum here...

To my mind, the above description - specifically the bits about teeth like a shark’s and blue skin - is an echo of any number of descriptions of merfolk in the Philippines: specifically the siyokoy, though the siyokoy are described as being much more animal-like than the ponaturi of this novel. That sense of familiarity is the same for the maero (which remind me of kapre) and the patupaiarehe (which remind me of diwata or engkanto). Though they are not exactly the same, there’s plenty there that still echoes with what I know of the entities of myth and folklore in my own country. That feeling of simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity is perhaps the most fun aspect of reading this novel.

Another thing that’s familiar about the iwi atua in this novel is how grey their morality is - mostly because they don’t adhere to any contemporary human notion of morality. For those iwi atua that have a moral code, that moral code is an ancient one: one that, to someone with twenty-first century sensibilities, might seem off-putting at best or downright barbaric at worst. The only way a mortal can stay safe is to know the stories and the folktales, and to follow the rules of those stories and folktales. In the Philippines, this is still possible; many children still learn about the old pamahiin, the old superstitions, from their elders - less frequently in the current generation than in mine, but I’m reasonably sure those stories are still passed on. I’m not sure how true this is in New Zealand, but if this novel is any indication, being told what to do to avoid getting eaten by a maero isn’t information being passed down to a lot of young New Zealanders.

Equally fun are the descriptions of the city of Wellington itself. Take the following excerpt:
He nodded at the bulk of the library looming to their left. The sloping walkway they were on clung to the building’s side, running parallel to Harris Street. And ahead of them were the streets that led to other places in the central city, or along either side of the waterfront, or into different suburbs. That was one of the things Tony loved about Wellington when she first moved here, that all the streets in the central city were so compact, all the important places in a few minutes’ easy walking if you could figure out the tangle of roads. They’d sprung up and changed as the city grew, as it was shaken by earthquakes, as the roads were needed first for horses and then trams and now cars. …

It’s clear that this novel is a love letter to Wellington; it shows in the detailed way the author describes locales, and the way the characters (supernatural or otherwise) move through it. I’ve never been to Wellington before, but the way it’s described in the novel is very different from how most other cities are described in urban fantasy novels. I suppose it might be because of the genre’s roots in grittier noir fiction, but oftentimes, urban fantasies tend to focus on the darker, dirtier side of city life. Not so this novel. While it still does show some of the city’s grit and dirt, most of the focus is on the lighter, brighter side of the city. Where other cities in urban fantasy novels are dusty and desaturated, the Wellington of The Wind City feels brighter and more colourful. It reads like a place where, if one looks hard enough, one might catch a brief glimpse of something wondrous.

However, while those things are good reasons to pick up this book, there are other reasons that a reader might not want to. Chief of those is the plot, which isn’t as cohesive as I think it should be. To be sure, it starts out all right, and there’s something to be said for the breadth and varying viewpoints that following three different characters can achieve, but by around the midway point it becomes utterly chaotic. It’s like the reader’s equivalent of being in the back of a cart with the reins on the horses cut loose: uncontrollable and inescapable.

Because of this, everything else that’s good about this novel suffers - like the characterisation. My prime example for this is Saint, who is introduced as a street-wise, smart-mouthed, and slightly broken (even before the events of the novel) individual who talks his way into and out of trouble fairly easily, for better and for worse. Early in the novel he's quite interesting, but as the novel progresses, he only grows more and more irritating to read about. While I do not equate “good” characters with “likeable” characters, I feel like Saint could have been just the way he was while also being less irritating if only more time and care had been spent on really fleshing him out. The same goes for Tony: she’s likeable enough, but her characterisation feels rather shallow. And Steffan, who is introduced later than the other two, gets the short end of the characterisation stick, because he feels like an afterthought when his is probably one of the most intriguing storylines in the entire novel.

The novel’s world-building also suffers in the headlong rush to bring everything and everyone together. The lovely image of Wellington the reader first encounters is reduced to nothing more than a blur, and that sense of wonder created in the first half practically evaporates, along with any potential richness and depth that may have been created by the inclusion (again, fairly late in plot) of modern-day iwi atua. I had been wondering about those, given how iwi atua are described as being manifestations of a place or concept, but that idea is introduced too late to be really developed. Like Steffan (whose plotline appears to have been meant to run alongside that of the modern iwi atua), they feel like an afterthought.

Overall, The Wind City starts out as a fascinating read, with Wellington and Maori folklore and mythology being the main hooks and highlights to lure the reader in. This is helped along by the fact that, at first, the characters and the plot are all initially quite promising. Sadly, that promise is not fulfilled, because by the halfway point the plot just seems to lose its head entirely and careens wildly towards the ending, wrecking everything along the way. Had there been a tighter hand on the story’s reins (or indeed, any hand at all), then something satisfying might have come out of this novel, but unfortunately, that is not the case.
Mar 9th, 2020, 12:17 am