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REVIEW: The Inverted World by Christopher Priest

REVIEW SUMMARY: Reads like classic science fiction.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Helward Mann discovers the true nature of the world outside of the traveling City Earth.


PROS: Excellent sense of wonder and mystery, multiple plot threads that were equally interesting, great premise, immersive.

CONS: Ultimate explanation of events somewhat lacking.

BOTTOM LINE: I enjoyed the heck out of this book.

Helward Mann (that’s not too prophetic a name, is it?) is a new apprentice in the Guild of City Earth, sworn to protect the secrets of the Guild under penalty of death. Helward learns that City Earth is in constant motion, moving forever northward along tracks (at a whopping .10 miles per day!), forever striving to reach “optimum” although its takes Helward some time to find out what that means. By working in several of the Guild parties, Helward learns of their secrets firsthand and slowly pieces together the true nature of the planet on which City Earth roams.

The Inverted World reads like a classic science fiction book – the physical concepts of the world in which it takes place are filled with a sense of wonder. (It’s hard to say more along these lines without spoiling the mystery. Suffice it to say that the main thrust of the book is one of hard science and while the laws of physics might seem strained at first, all is explained in the end.) The mysteries of the planet and the city were expertly unraveled and kept me interested throughout the book.

The main thread of the book centers on the moving city: the how, the why and the where. This thread was interleaved with (and perfectly balanced by) other equally-interesting threads concerning Helward’s wife Victoria and the Guild society of the city. Helward’s arranged marriage to Victoria is at first strained. She longs to achieve the social status unattainable to women and longs to see the outside of the city, a privilege reserved for Guild members. Against his oath, Helward tells Victoria some of what he’s learned. Victoria, who is already questioning the state of the city’s affairs and the power of the Guild, grows even more doubtful of the city’s future. The Guild society was interesting in that its sole purpose is to protect the true nature of events and keep the city from harm by driving it toward the optimum location. They even measure time in miles traveled by the city as in “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.”

The writing style of the book, while a little dry at times, was detailed yet somehow not drawn out. When Helward was working the Guild, I felt like I was right there along with him. However, I would not call this a character-driven book – the thing that kept my attention was wondering what the heck is really going on outside the city. Again, I don’t want to say much for fear of ruining the suspense and mystery that is so delicately built up, but there are some weird things happening outside the city! The premise for the book came across as inventive and unique even though it reminded me at times of Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, but only because that’s another book whose main appeal is the planet on which it takes place. The moving city concept reminded me of Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds although this book predates that one by 30 years. The themes presented – honor, duty, gender roles, equality, reality and discovery – were combined in a way that kept me immersed and thinking.

If I had to gripe about anything about the book it would be the final explanation and open ending. The final explanation, while cool and surprising, was a bit short. I bought into it but can’t say I fully understand it. And the open ending left me wondering what was going to happen to Helward.

Overall though, I enjoyed the heck out of this book with its great sense of wonder, buildup of mystery and suspense and a portrayal of an interesting society.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on REVIEW: The Inverted World by Christopher Priest

  1. I remember reading this as a kid. It’s one of the few books from the 70s that has stuck with me to this day. When people (like yourself) speak of the ‘sense of wonder’ that comes from good SF, I think of this book.


  2. This book has also stayed with me since the 70’s, so much I bought another copy recently to replace the one I had lost. I think some of the characterisation is a little weeak, and almost naive, but the strong plot keeps you going to the end. Incidentally, without wishing to spoil the book, I did feel that the end of the book and its implications for the City was quite well explained.

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