Switzerland finally has its own epic fantasy novel. It’s called Die Stadt am Abgrund, is part of Die Chronik von Stahl und Feder. It is written not by one, but by two Swiss authors, Tädeus M. Fivaz and Peter Segmüller.
Die Stadt am Abgrund is part of the long list of epic fantasy novels, the books that often excel at worldbuilding, and usually weigh about as much as a small horse. Die Stadt am Abgrund – The City at The Abyss – is no exception here, the writing process centers on the fictional world Opalindon which the authors have created, and at over 1000 pages it’s certainly not a quick read. As there are two writers, there are also two main protagonists, Sellvan, the bastard brother of the king, and the street urchin Divades.
A New Approach
What makes this book stand out from all the other fantasy book out there, apart from its Swiss-ness, is the collaboration and writing process of the authors. They started creating their world more than ten years ago but quickly realized that the kind of societies they were interested in differed a lot. While Segmüller liked to focused on a society based on military strength, Fivaz preferred political intrigues. So they did exactly what you’d expect two guys from Switzerland to do. Instead of focusing on only one of the two, they went along with both, called the whole thing Opalindon and named the two newly established cantons, excuse me, countries, The Mark and Cheruskerland. Of course, a certain rivalry between the two was unavoidable. This gave rise to The Great Chronicles, a work of three years, which is not a published book, just established canon for the authors to base their stories on. This level of dedication is a rare treat, and very obvious throughout the book. I have seldom encountered a higher level of almost obsessive precision when it comes to every aspect of this imaginary world. Every tiny detail, down to the music, marital customs and architecture has been determined.
An Old Problem
While their approach of having two authors “warring” against each other is unique as far as I know, the concept of basing whole books primarily on an imaginary world is not. It’s been done before, and I find that these books often face an enormous challenge. Having established a fantastic world, authors will then scramble to find a main character that can now show off this world. In the worst case, the main character and plot line become nothing more than an awkward tour guide. A vibrant and strong world needs characters just as vibrant and strong, or they will end up looking lost. Very few authors can get away with weak characters, it requires a world so immersing and bold I forget to care about the people in it, and that’s a rather tall order. Just like most readers I care about protagonists a whole lot.
Sadly, this is where Die Stadt am Abgrund falls short. While the world is well thought out and coherent, it’s just not bold enough to keep me captivated on its own. And while the two point of view characters and far from one-dimensional, they feel like two people picked specifically to show off Opalindon.
Opalindon itself is a classical medieval fantasy world. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s also nothing I haven’t seen before. While there are certain elements that are new and surprising, like the city built completely in the style of a gothic cathedral, these are only small, rather timid steps in the right direction, often only mentioned in passing. Most of the time seems to be spent describing more mundane things, which can sometimes make for odd pacing.
There’s a certain boldness to really immersive fantasy worlds that stick with you for a long time. Books like The Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson, in which the world is ravaged by incredibly powerful storms and has to adapt accordingly, or Railsea by China Miéville, where there are no oceans and in their place, there are railroad tracks., have simple premises that open endless possibilities to explore. I believe that the idea of having two authors and their respective countries at war with each other is a great concept, but it needs to be recognised as such and explored much further in order to have a lasting impact.
Most of the flaws in this book are down to a lack of courage and experience in writing books. That’s fine, after all, we’re dealing with fairly inexperienced writers here. But there’s one thing I do take issue with, and that’s the numerous unrealistic sex scenes. They are not needed, they don’t add anything to the story, and frankly, the book would be a whole lot better off without them.
If you’re interested in very detailed fantasy worlds, and a lot of political intrigue, this may be a book for you. It’s not without its flaws, some probably easier to overlook than others, but the intriguing thing about this book is really the concept of having two writers representing two countries. I hope they will strengthen this approach in future books.