I wasn't going to read this book at first, having read reviews of it around the web but I'd heard Downum's second novel in the series, The Bone Palace, was pretty good and I wanted to read that. Since I am anal, I had to start with the first book in the series. It was only after I finished The Drowning City that I learned that it was not necessary to read this book before reading The Bone Palace. I wish I had discovered that sooner.
Which is not to say that The Drowning City is a bad book. It's not. There are some interesting elements. The heroine is Isyllt Iskaldur, a necromancer and spy from Selafai. She has been sent to Symir, the capitol of Sivahra to offer aid and support to the revolutionaries looking to overthrow the occupying Assari Imperial government. (Whoo. That's a lot of esses.) She manages to make contact with the revolutionaries fairly quick; she also meets Asheris, a mysterious mage who serves the Imperial government. The Assari government are grade A dicks and there is more than one faction of revolutionaries looking to end there brutal rule. These factions are also at odds with one another over the methods that should be used. One group is for a nonviolent overthrow, the other will use any means necessary to achieve their goals.
I liked that there were more than two sides in this story - not just the usually good vs. evil. There are three different groups looking to overthrow the occupiers but each has different motives, each is working towards a different end result. Isyllt encourages revolution because the Imperial government is beginning to look to her own land with a conquering eye. Revolution in Symir will keep them from advancing that goal. The Dai Tranh work under the assumption of - you are either with us or against us, there is no middle ground. They'll kill enemies and allies alike to achieve their goal, which is to not only depose but also destroy the Imperial government. Then there are the Jade Tigers, who's talk of revolution never translates into effective action. Each group has its own agenda: each group has its flaws, which adds a nice complexity to the story.
However, complexity, if not skillfully executed, can also make the story hard to follow. The character's names were difficult for me to remember and, consequently, I had way too much trouble keeping everyone straight. (In fact, at one point we learn the name of the assassin who tried to kill Isyllt and I thought, Oh god - who was that again? And I just couldn't be bothered to flip back and figure out where the assassin fit into the story.) I never felt like I got to know the characters any deeper as the story went along so I found it hard to be invested in their personal journeys. Then there is the story. A city on the brink of revolution should be exciting but the book was slow going. There was very little suspense Isyllt didn't seem very proactive in her goals. Early on, she meets with the revolutionaries, makes the deal and then hangs around waiting for the promised supplies to arrive. Oh, there's some trouble she has to deal with but most of it happens when she is shopping or sightseeing or at a party. I would have liked to have seen her on the offense instead of merely defending herself. Some actual spying would have been good also... since she is a spy.
And I didn't quite buy her relationship with the Imperial mage, Asheris. They are on opposite sides, something he suspects and she knows. They come across as cordial acquaintances despite some indication that there is more to their relationship.
It took me some time to finish this book and I generally crank 'em out but I was often confused by the plot and who was who while reading this and so, would have to take a breather. There is a lot of potential here but, unfortunately, it is never fully realized. Still, it is not a bad book. Just one that failed to engage me.