The City as a Character: Gotham, London… Rijeka?

Disclaimer: I’ve cosplayed Jason Todd on one, notable occasion, but I don’t even like the Bats all that much. Also—and this seem to be a recurring occasion—I’m the wrong person to be writing about this. You need an actual person who works with lit theory (like, maybe, my partner in crime), but I feel this as a burning question, so I’m going to go for it.

What is this city as a character that I speak of?

The myth of the city is not a new one—think of the glory of Rome, even if you’ve never been as obsessed with Gladiator (the 2000 movie) as I am—nor is literature focused so much on the city the story takes place in that it ceases to be a simple backdrop and becomes something more. Sometimes, even, the reason for the story’s existence.

Although I have a theory that it’s slowly changing, and will continue to change, as more of us trickle out of big urban areas, especially post 2020—since it’s the exact opposite of what’s been going on for centuries—a lot of speculative fiction is still quite obsessed with the city, any city, as long as it’s big enough and not one we’re necessarily familiar with.

So take a peek through a few of my favourite fictional cities, including—but not limited to—those which have, through decades upon decades of fiction, grown to almost larger-than-life proportions, leaving the real world urban expansion, filled with concrete in place of secrets and magic, a lot less appealing to a reader’s eye.

“What I fear,” he said, “is that one day the cities will waken.”

Have you ever even been to New York? I’m not necessarily talking about the New York of Sex and the City, nor, even, One Fine Day (which a friend reminded me of the other day—it’s a child-of-the-nineties thing). I’m talking about the New York which has been looming on the horizon of basically every piece of modern-day American fiction as the goal, the ideal, the promised land. (…Or was it just a Glee thing?)

Which is why I find it even more interesting that its streets provided the building block which eventually gave birth to the idea of Gotham—the darkest, shittiest, extremely twisted and one of the most revered places in the whole comic land.

Is it weird if my favourite Gotham version is the 1992 animated series one? C’mon. It’s got skyscrapers. It’s got Art Deco aesthetics. And I watched it every school night, every week, with dinner, for what, in retrospect, looks like ages. Later, the Nolan movies happened, and then my brief, but very intense appreciation for all things Jason Todd, and Gotham became something even more—through graphic novels, through fanfiction, through fan theory. It would be really fun to try to find out whether people who write and draw Gotham as it is—dark, twisty, foggy, smoggy (not sure if that’s a word) and, well, you know, creepy—do it out of love or hate for its older sister, New York.

But I have a hunch it stopped being about New York a long time ago, and became about Gotham itself.

Coming clean time: I can’t, for the life of me, quote the original source for We’ll always have Paris. (To me, it all starts and ends with Jean Luc and Beverly.) On the other hand, London has been a sort of a family obsession ever since I was a kind. Including that time I thought I was going with my parents to visit there as a preschooler, but I got the flu or something, and had to stay behind. Or something. I was heartbroken for years.

It was, that is, until I actually managed to go to England, with my best friend, a few years ago, and ended up… a tad underwhelmed? I really did like Milan and München and many others quite a bit more. Sorry. I mean, it’s just a city.

Which is why my favourite fictional versions of London are, I feel, even more important. It’s how cities of myths are made, after all.

I first read about London through Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose—and yes, I’m one of those pesky Holmesian purists (or, at least, I was, until Mary Russell came along)—and I don’t even remember it all that much. I was basically a reader baby, at that time. (I do remember that frequency analysis is one of the fastest and/or simplest ways to crack easy alphabetical codes or whaddaya call it).

The London of Doctor Who came later and I have to admit that, as a fan of Torchwood, primarily, it was like a small nuke went off in my head when I realized that the Canary Wharf which Ianto spoke of was, um, a real place. (Pleasedon’tlaugh.)

KJ Charles’ London snuck up on me when I least expected it (and ended up changing my life in more ways than I can name), so I’ll just say that I recommend KJ Charles’ books with my whole heart (honestly, sometimes even more than I recommend Gideon the Ninth), and that her London is dark, gritty, magical and incredibly historically researched. If you’ve ever wondered how scrap paper traders or insurrectionists lived in the 19th century, pick up one of her city-based books (start with The Magpie Lord). She’s a true miracle.

My favourite London-inspired fiction, though, is still Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. (The first book is, you guessed it, Rivers of London.) It’s already been a few years since I first started with Rivers of London, and I literally devoured the first few books one fine summer. (Okay, I actually devoured the photons—or whatever—reflected from my partner’s Kindle, back then. But you get the gist of it.)

I’m still a little unsure as to how so many people have never heard of Rivers of London. Is it because it’s so new? (The first was published in 2011.) Is it because it’s European? Is it because it’s not nearly as mysogynistic as urban fantasy seems to me to be, these days? Or is something more sinister (coughracismcough) at play? The series is, put simply, glorious. It plays with a bit of old school Celtic folklore (and I usually fall asleep quite promptly after a book dares to mention Seelie and Unseelie), but it twists it and turns it into something new, something sexy, something the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

And then there’s Peter. Peter is awesome. Peter was, actually, awesome all by himself, and then he got Beverly and the whole lot of the actual rivers (and genius loci is not just some random Latin catchphrase with Rivers of London), and he stole my London-loving heart forever. (Also, he knows how to work industrial-grade cleaning supplies, because he’s an actual person with an actual family and actual, great character background. He’s not just a precious baby. He’s a well written precious baby.)

Seriously, read Rivers of London. Not every contemporary urban fantasy series needs to be about heteronormative shifters (said the writer whose first novel was about a cishet shifter).

Having done that, the question remains—how the hell does my hometown of Rijeka come into play, though? It’s tiny. (Barely 360k people in the greater area.) It’s almost unnoticeable on most maps, sitting neatly between Zagreb (200ish kilometers to the east) and Venice (230ish kilometers to the west). It was once on the receiving end of a regular steam boat line from New York—you might’ve heard of that small, insignificant ship called the Carpathia—and allegedly it was the biggest harbour in all of the Austro-Hungarian Empire… or something.

But we never got our urban fantasy series. We never got our city as a character narrative… until now.

Because, as most literary cities go—there are finally a few of us writing speculative fiction set in the city of Rijeka, and at the same time. Seriously, I’m getting the chills just thinking about it. Two people on this list have written dark urban fantasy set in Rijeka before, alongside a few friends who are, to my knowledge, currently not publishing anything new at the time I’m writing this—and the third writer is, well, me.

It seems like such a small thing, but it’s actually a little groundbreaking. The capital of Croatia got its epics. The nearby region of Istra got quite a lot of speculative fiction set there, mostly (but not exclusively) thanks to Davor Šišović, who was the person who finally got me hooked on writing fiction set in Croatia, too.

And now it’s Rijeka’s turn, to see what she can become, in the eyes of future readers.

I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with Rijeka—and not quite like the London thing I’ve mentioned above. I’m what you’d call a lokalpatriot in these parts (I feel you can glean the meaning quite easily), and, even though there are quite a few of us Rijeka-lovers around here, a lot of people have, too, simply moved away. I’m a part of a larger-scale generation of people whose friends have moved (mostly to other parts of Europe, but there are people from our county all over the world, and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest) in search of better money and higher quality of life. Some people came back. A lot of them didn’t.

I’ve spent most of my life in Rijeka. And the weird thing is—I’ve never actually wanted to leave. (I went away for college in the end, boo-hoo—and came back for work.) Rijeka is… not perfect. It held the reputation of one of the most liberal areas in all of Croatia for ages, but I have a hunch we’ve gone down to the national median lately. It’s still perceived as one of the most ‘punk’ cities in the country, though.

To me, it’s just… the place I know best, while still being aware that, in some way, I know almost nothing at all. I’m not sure if Rijeka is the reason I’m a firm member of Team Underdog, or a part of it, but I’ve come to know so many little details about it through the years I’ve been writing about it and its neighbouring regions, that I feel that small sometimes truly is better. (That, and I’ve never been one for a bustling nightlife.)

As for the books about Rijeka; you might’ve already picked up that my partner-in-crime Antonija Mežnarić writes (mostly) sapphic horror inspired by Croatia, but one of her upcoming novels in English will, in fact, be set in Rijeka and the surrounding area. I’m not sure how much I can share at this point, but it’s:

a) postapocalyptic
b) queer as all hell
c) a story with an awesome ship-to-be.

I just need to keep my fingers crossed that she actually does deliver on the latter front, because they’re so incredibly adorable (and troubled) (and problematic) (and cute as fuck), but she keeps teasing me with the possibility of keeping them apart just to, dunno, spite me, I guess. The novel continues somewhere around where her story The Lottery (which you can read in this collection) ends, and the ship in question isn’t actually the main-main cast, but it’s the main supporting cast. (Fingers crossed!)

On the other hand, Antonija’s novella What do Nightmares Dream of is, in fact, set in Rijeka proper, and the city is a most definite part of the narrative, mostly in the form of neverending downpours. (Yup, Rijeka is fun. And its rain might be one of the reasons I’ve always loved stories set in London so much, even though we get almost no fog at all.) It’s a story about a teacher who’s had enough of grading papers, and who ends up with a nightmarish roommate, which seriously cramps our heroine’s style when she tries not to flirt with the cute new Math substitute at work. (Antonija also has a free short story in English, available here!)

Igor Rendić is a longtime friend who has put his fiction on my literary map with one of his novelettes in Croatian, Snijeg, kao posut staklenom prašinom (which my blunt-force translation might relay as Snow, as if Sprinkled With Glass Dust), for which he’d earned yet another of his national speculative fiction award a few years ago. It’s a heartbreaking—no, make that heartwrecking—sci-fi short which evokes the Vorkosigan saga a bit, and I’m really sorry it hasn’t been translated yet. You can read a few of his stories in English, though, here.

The reason I’ve started writing this post as excited as I was is because it is with great pleasure (and quite a bit of dread) that I can now announce that our publishing cottage Shtriga will publish Igor’s very first full-length novel—and in English—later in 2021! It’s called A Town Called River (because ‘rijeka’ is actually a common noun in Croatian, which literally does mean river), and it’s the first book of an urban fantasy series set in Rijeka, with heaps of awesome stuff which I can’t wait to read. It received a literary grant from the city itself (which I learned of only a few days before writing these lines!), which is such a big thing for us I’m not even sure where to start talking about it.

I’ll make sure to share more about A Town Called River as we put it into our calendars, and as Igor continues working on it, but, just for now—so excited!

Aaaand… then there’s me. I first started writing about Rijeka in my first NaNoWriMo foray, in the early 2010s. The novel was abysmal, but it did end up with a pretty neat little supernatural fight in the skies above one of Rijeka’s prettiest cemeteries. (We have two old old ones.) I only came back to the city as a setting a few years ago, when I started writing my as-of-yet unpublished (don’t blame me, blame Vesna of two years ago) werewolf novel set here in the late 1870s. (For those who have been hanging around for a while, it’s the one and only Third Werewolf Novel.) The problem was that, once I started writing shit set in Rijeka again, I couldn’t find it in me to stop.

So Johnny’s Girls were born. And Girls in Black. And now, all I can say is…

Watch out for more.

Because Rijeka deserves all the best we’ve got to offer from our wretched little writing hearts, and we’ll make damn sure the city gets it. Just like the cities which have, through books, comics and movies, built our childhood dreams.

The line is from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; it’s a quote which stuck with me for a few decades, and one I’m happy to carry for as long as my memory will allow.

In my other life, where I don’t write about other people’s books and how much I love a bunch of buildings, I write about world-hopping, redhead dieselpunk doppelgängers solving mysteries. Come hang in a golden, alt!historical 1945 with us.

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash.

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