What sustains a city in the middle of a desert, bounded by nothing, and moreover, what sustains the inhabitants of that city as they go about their daily lives? Since the dawn of time man has needed to travel, to explore in order to grow, but in the City of the Iron Fish no-one but gypsies and bandits travel and there is nowhere to explore: the 'Greater World' of snow topped mountains, flower strewn meadows and deep seas is nothing but a dream. The City is sustained by magic; the people by art.
Born in the City is Tom, the son of a traditionalist who has devoted his life to the study of the rites of the Ceremony of the Iron Fish, the ceremonies held every twenty years to expand and change the city, help it grow, give it the magic to survive the desertıs assault. But by Tomıs first ceremony the full traditions are not followed and the changes are only slight and as Tom grows up he finds he needs to know the secret of the City, and more importantly needs to know if there is a Greater World, and so with his friend Blythe he leaves the City in search of Something and finds Nothing.
How do you react to finding that your home is really a prison: that there is no escape? In the ensuing years, as they approach the next Ceremony of the Iron Fish, Tom and Blythe have to cope with this terrible knowledge while carrying on with their lives: Tom searching first for solace in art, then in self-destruction, Blythe, plumbling the depths of despair and then rising beyond it. Complicating things are, lurking menacingly in the background and becoming more and more prominent, the women in black, smashing up art, slowly destroying everything in the City in a nihlistic fervour. Matters finally come to a head at the last Cermony of the Iron Fish.
Simon Ings, has in City of the Iron Fish, created a beautifully conceived world, populated by a miriad of wonderful characters: Tom, Blythe and all the people who they meet and work with, are all realistically drawn, giving a fine sense of the highs and lows of life, especially in such an artificial world. Especially affecting is Ings' depiction of Tom and his relationships: his first, drunken sexual encounter; his claustrophobic relationship with the fading but dominating artist, C.P.S.; his casual affair with Nye -- who really loves him; Tom's slide down into despair and self-loathing -- all keep a tight emotional hold on the reader.
But The City of the Iron Fish is not all heavy emotions: it has its share of black humour and is well paced without lacking depth, an accomplishment in what is only Simon Ings' second novel. As such it shows great promise, but is also able to stand alone as a thoughtful and original speculative fiction novel.