A City Dreaming - Daniel Polansky

One thing you can say about Daniel Polansky's A City Dreaming is that it's witty and not lacking in imagination - which might actually be two things, although the second is technically 'not' something. Anyway, sorry, that's the way Daniel Polasky plays with your head in this entertaining urban fantasy set in New York, although evidently he does it with considerably more wit and imagination.

Essentially A City Dreaming is a collection of related short adventures of an urban magician called M. M obviously wouldn't be so gauche as to walk around New York with a stick, a cloak and a pointy hat, but he has certain powers - not to mention a lot of bluff and nerve - that allows him to work on several levels of reality that coexist within the city, as well as associate with other mages of 'the Management' who operate there. They are, as you might imagine, quite a collection of eccentric, dangerous and quite touchy people in this line of work, some who can hold grudges for a long time or demand near-impossible favours for reasons whimsical, obscure and sometimes threatening to the entire existence of several realities, including our own.

No, you're just kidding yourself - you couldn't imagine for a second the richness of characterisation or the surreality and variety of situation that M encounters in his latest sojourn to the other side of a city that is already strange enough as it is on the familiar level. A City Dreaming is filled with delightful pop culture references that are often funny and sometimes a little smug, not to mention occasionally rude. It's all the more varied for not being a novel in the strictest sense, as much as a collection of short self-contained adventures that feature the recurring characters that M unfortunately feels obliged to acknowledge and socialise with when he absolutely can't avoid it.

And if you can't imagine it, think how hard it must be to review and to do some justice to the writing without quoting every other funny line in the book. In the first few pages, just before returning to New York, M witnesses a mage battle between a wolf-man and a Belle Époque-styled practitioner of voodoo in a Parisian bar. In the next couple of chapters he rescues a girl called Boy from a bunch of New York river pirates; is summoned (magically of course) to attend a soiree held by the White Queen of the city, the most beautiful/terrifying woman you can imagine (aside from the rival Red Queen maybe); and goes for a ride to some alternate reality destinations with potentially no return journey to fight monsters on some lesser-known lines of the New York subway.

Thereafter, M tries to pass the time in the traditional way with drink, drugs and beautiful women, which means that he has to risk running into old acquaintances he'd rather forget at social gatherings, charity events with zombie attendants, goblin markets and suspiciously proliferating coffee shops. He not only has to avoid some demons and a gods that resides behind his eye (those drugs are quite exotic), but worse he also has to endure the terrifying presence of hipsters (shudder!) and financial yuppies who sacrifice victims to the Dark God in the Hamptons. In 'The Coming of the Four' there's even an entire fantasy trilogy condensed down into a delightfully dry and satirical 12-page epic here.

The nature of this kind of writing, with a hundred gags, witty observations and clever references per page is that it can become a little wearing at any kind of length. A City Dreaming is therefore best consumed in small slices and not all in one go, as tempting as it might be to keep reading. There are far more hits than misses however, Polansky cleverly keeping some semblance of satirical reality in the midst of all this unreality. Like M, it knows when to keep its distance and not outstay its welcome. This is terrific writing and very funny indeed.


A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky is published by Hodder and Stougton on 6th October 2016

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