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Book Review: The Immortal City by May Peterson

Partial book cover of The Immortal City by May Peterson

Cover of The Immortal City by May Peterson showing a cliffside city facing snowy mountainsThe Immortal City by May Peterson is the second book in the Sacred Dark trilogy, but it’s really a standalone with only a small link to the first book, Lord of the Last Heartbeat, which I reviewed here. So, if The Immortal City appeals to you more on its own, feel free to jump right in. I will say, having just started the third book, The Calyx Charm, there may be a bit more interconnectedness there, so take this with a grain of salt.

The book opens with Ari, a moon-soul (Peterson’s term for immortal shifters who have died and been granted eternal life as transcendent beings), watching a mortal about to leap to his death just outside Serenity, the titular Immortal City, where mortals come seeking things they might do well to leave alone. First-chapter meet-cutes seem to be a thing with Peterson, and this one’s a doozy. The beautiful, joyful young man glances over at Ari, says “Catch me,” then leaps into the void. Ari (he’s a dove shifter OMG 😍) flies down and snatches him out of the air.

“And his arms clenched me tight, face burying in my chest. The heat of his body was like a knife cutting through me. And for a moment the earth spun, the night air a spiral paring Serenity away. We fell into the clear air, the sky lit up with sparks. He laughed until I was laughing with him, and I caught myself breathing in the warm human scent of his hair and clothes.”

Your Honor, I love them already.

Who is this fragile, joyous, innocent youth who so blithely leaps to certain death, and why has he come to Serenity? Some mortals come here for a chance at immortality; a leap from the rocks means death for most, but others are reborn as moon-souls or other ethereal creatures. Some seek entrance through Serenity’s gates hoping for wisdom, truth, pleasure—the Immortal City has much to offer hungry souls fleeing whatever drab or hateful lives they came from.

Like Lord of the Last Heartbeat, The Immortal City shows people running from their pasts looking for brighter futures, but in this case, they are preyed upon by ruthless crow-shifters who feed on their memories in exchange for illusory gains. The atmosphere of the city is part New York City, part Amsterdam, part something from a vampire movie where people voluntarily get partially drained in dark corners of smoky underground clubs. Death and life and everything in between and beyond commingle in a hedonistic menagerie of shadow and light, of memory and forgetting.

We were a graveyard of cities, of legacies, and thus Serenity itself was as much a living-again as the moon-souls who dwelled in it. The city did not remember all the things it had once been. Our new realms were formed in the cracks of those old identities.”

As I wrote in my review of Lord of the Last Heartbeat, themes of queerness and surviving trauma abound in this trilogy, and they are often inseparable in these books. Leaving old lives and seeking new ones is an ongoing theme, but it’s always complicated, messy, painful, and risky. To me, Peterson’s afterlife has the feel of a queer neighborhood in a big city where people have moved from less friendly places, though I suppose it could just as easily describe any other diasporic community:

“Ghosts tended to form ecosystems of souls as they settled into local haunting patterns, shared fetters, common griefs. Some streets were nothing but effusive hives of vibrant ghosts, joining around their own ethereal brand of needs.”

In the book, we see mortals fleeing situations of war and abuse, landing in Serenity as a last hope, only to end up as unwitting sex workers of a sort to Lord Umber and his crew of menacing crow shifters who control their memories and gaslight them. The main character himself is a victim—the novel is billed as a Fantasy Amnesia Romance—and his quest to recover his memory is a major plot point.

Unlike Lord of the Last Heartbeat, The Immortal City gives us a lot of hot romance—and spice—early and often. This is M/M, by the way, though the way Peterson writes, one doesn’t much care about the gender of the participants. There’s this connection, this tenderness, but also a scorching passion throughout. Sparks fly and flames billow as Ari and Hei meet in the crags and aeries high in the city, making love under glowing crystals. These scenes are hot and tender, and it was a relief not to have to wait until near the end of the book, as was the case with Lord of the Last Heartbeat. No shade on that book or on those who like a slow burn; that’s just not my preference, and this book delivers plenty of spice from the get-go.

As the relationship amps up, we quickly discover there’s more to Hei than meets the eye. As Ari deals with Umber and other figures in Serenity’s underworld, he starts to doubt Hei’s intentions. Things get complicated—there’s a witch who can sort of alter time, some alliances that aren’t quite what they seem, and some big surprises.

And the fight scenes are glorious. Lord of the Last Heartbeat had a lot of ethereal ghostly fight scenes, but these are more physical, with Ari (he’s a dove shifter, remember? But like human-sized. HOW COOL IS THAT?) and crow-shifters, and Hei has some super cool martial-arts skills involving special weaponry that uses a kind of holy water. And a really cool sword. Anyway, from a fantasy action perspective, there’s a lot to like here, and I enjoyed the action scenes a lot. One quibble is that there was a lot of speechification in some of the important action scenes, which I know is hardly uncommon in big fight scenes, but I’m not a huge fan of when the bad guy needs to explain in great detail exactly how and/or why he did what he did, or the good guy either. Maybe that’s a me thing. But it’s a quibble—the big set pieces are glorious, and the finale was worth the buildup.

Peterson’s fantasy is on a very grand scale, magically speaking. When we get to the end of the book, the magic is BIG and IMPRESSIVE and WORLD-LEVEL. That’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea—it’s not necessarily mine, but I like it when it’s beautifully written and rendered with passion, as it is here. The big magic plays into the resolution of the romance plot as well, in ways I won’t spoil for you. Just know going in that you’re here for a big magic ride, so strap in and enjoy it.

I have just begun reading The Calyx Charm, which features a transfeminine heroine, and it’s breaking my heart already. I can’t wait to see how Peterson heals me.

 

Read my review of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows

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