Tor.com; June 7, 2022
256 pages (ebook)
Goodreads • StoryGraph
Author Website • Socials
6.5 / 10 ✪
I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor.com and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.
“I always know where you are, “ Rohit says. “I’ve always known, ever since you left. We’re family. I assumed you would come to me when you were ready. But you’ve never claimed your blood was thicker than it is. The fault is mine.”
“You’re being even weirder than usual,” Rudra says. “What do you want?”
“Calm down and watch your tone. We are the city’s elite in a place of power, where we may speak freely, but remember there are always eyes on us.”
The City Inside provides a look into a tech-rich, restrictive, dystopian India that very well could come to pass. Inspired by recent events, the story takes place in the not-so-distant future. At the moment, the government is focused on turning the country from a secular to a Hindu state, valuing some citizens over others, while even evicting other minorities—particularly Muslims—from the country. By the time our story starts, the mass exodus has already ended. The popular movement supporting secularism has failed, and dissent is no longer tolerated by the government. There is a migrant crisis; religious discrimination, racism, bigotry, and caste hierarchy are rampant. Freedom is no longer free. The government keeps a close eye on its citizens, particularly those that rise above the rest. And yet life goes on.
Joey is a reality controller. She acts as the manager of Indi, up and coming Idol and reality star. While the two have a complicated past, they work together quite well, to the point that Indi is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular online celebrities, primed for a jump to the country’s main stage. While his feeds and livestreams focus on the fast lifestyle of the rich and famous—popular feuds, fast cars, sex with models and actresses and royalty, everything and more within the grasp of India’s elite—the world of politics and power is only a step away. Indeed, Indi is at the height of his power: millions of fans follow his feeds daily, hourly; he can’t appear in public without causing riots; everything he says or does is dissected, obsessed over, eaten up. Thus Joey has her hands full. But while she’s busy running Indi’s life, she still hasn’t figured out what she wants for her own.
Rudra is a recluse. Youngest son of one of the most powerful family’s in India, he returns home following the death of his father only to get stuck once more in his family’s orbit—a place he’d rather die than remain. Rescued by Joey, he goes to work for Indi, but quickly gets more than he bargained for, immediately becoming embroiled in the Idol’s reality lifestyle. But as both he and Joey are confronted with plots and conspiracies, the two are left with few options. Each must choose their own road—whatever it may be.
‘ No matter who’s in power, no matter who needs land or blood, no matter which country’s secretly running ours, there’s one thing all sides agree on—the children of the rich must be protected. ‘
Before starting this, I only had an inkling of what was going on behind India’s borders. The current administration—led by Narendra Modi—is pushing hard for the country to relinquish secularism (religious freedom) and become a Hindu state. As such they are attempting to depopulate the country of religious minorities (particularly Muslims) through a variety of means—most recently, by stripping their citizenship and deporting them. The book itself proved just the tip of the iceberg for me as I fell down the rabbit hole. There’s so much more I could tell you about the situation—but I won’t. Partly because it’s not really applicable to the text; partly because since I’m watching it from without, I may not have the most unbiased view. But should you read the book and find the dystopian society interesting, I’d recommend checking it out. Because—for a dystopian—it’s not much of a leap.
The story itself was, well… a bit of a mixed bag.
I’m pretty sure the whole main story with Indi is an allegory for something, though I couldn’t tell you what it is. There were several clues, though I won’t spill them here. Without reading anything into it however, the main story was worth the price of admission. The interactions between the leads (Joey and Rudra), and their subsequent relationships to the rest of the cast were quite well done, so much so that I’d hesitate to name a book twice the length of this that has deeper or more complex characters. And that’s really saying something.
It’s a shame then, that the rest of it is so riddled with issues.
All in all, this is a tale about nationalism. Except it isn’t. It’s a story about love. No, no, that’s not it either. It’s a warning for the future? Maybe, but not entirely. I mean, it’s more about nationalism. Or is it sexism? From the outset, I had trouble making out what this was actually about. I mean, it’s about many, many things, but when it boils right down to it… I’m not sure what several of those are. And that’s because while the City Inside sets out to tackle a whole bunch of issues and themes, I’m not convinced it does any of these too well. At least, upon finishing the story—in spite of it’s many, many endings—I didn’t feel very much resolution. To any of the storylines. The dystopian “the government is watching you” seemed like a big theme at first, only to vanish for most of the story. The rise of nationalism, anti-secularism, and the fight for the future fade in and out, but always seems to turn up at the dramatic bits. The characters’ personal threads are just as varied. Though, to be honest, no one really gets a concrete ending. Joey gets kind of a vaguely satisfying conclusion, while Rudra (the other main lead) has no resolution whatsoever. Just don’t expect any of the characters to have any satisfying settlement come the end, and you’ll be okay (yes, I know how that sounds—and yes, that’s definitely sarcasm).
That being said, though the ending definitely soured me on it, I really did enjoy the journey. Sure, it was a twisting, turning, often confusing journey—one where I never really knew what to expect and was never quite certain about what the author was talking about (this is the kind of story that just screamed “packed with hidden meaning, subtlety, and undercurrent)—but it was quite immersive at the same time. The technical aspect of it suffered some lag from the language, as the author often spammed the term ‘Flow’—even going so far as to use several different iterations of the term in each’s definition. In back-to-back sentences I counted as many as six, which is objectively too many made up words.
And still, this gripped me. It was not an easy read, but one I kept coming back to, without so much as a thought of DNFing it. I know that so far I’ve pretty much just complained about it, only offering “but I promise it’s really quite good”, but that’s how I feel about it. There are some problems, yes. Okay, a LOT of problems, but somewhere within is a good story. A story of a lost son and a voracious daughter. The story of two very different people who are at the same time very much alike. A story of hope, disappointment, life, love, happiness, loss, politics, acceptance—all tied together with an open-ended bow.
All this aside, this 250ish pager is $15 for an ebook. That’s quite steep, especially for all that I had to say…