A burning woman stalks along the streets. Ten stories tall, naked body a whirling holocaust of fire."
Forget the color of the sky. It's got the *punk!
An odd concept.
Wizards meet bureaucrats and gangsters in a quaint noirish setting (more than Metropolis, think Dark City meets Tokyo). Nietzschean fantasies and wish-fulfillment romance play out in a social realist novel. The detailed fantasy world is extraordinarily implausible yet internally consistent.
The story goes in many directions and shows off different aspects of the setting. That's immersive but on the other hand means very little resolution ends up being provided in this installment of the series. And the way in which the book was wrapped up (basically with a sudden concession) makes it worse. If you decide to make it to the end, make it your business to obtain the sequel!
The author apparently let his imagination go wild and ended up overwhelmed.
The Big Idea is dazzling and ludicrous yet full of potential: magical power as a tradable industrial commodity. It's sort of like natural gas except it's produced by geomancy instead of geology and can do almost anything. And it's more easily transported, making it very close to commodity money.
Fantasy allowed Williams to simplify economic relationships considerably. In this world, the rich don't need institutions to exercise the power of money (though they find them convenient of course). If they're magicians or have a few magicians at their side, they can directly change the world by spending money. It's kind of like finance mysticism and conspiracy theories about bankers come true.
You'd expect a mix of police state(s) and gangsterism given the monopolistic nature of such a resource economy. And there's a lot of that in the story. But the setting is not as violent as you might imagine, apparently because industry is big as well (judging from how omnipresent advertising for mundane products is). The society isn't too far off from our own in any case.
- SPOILERS BELOW -
Though the characters occasionally wax political or economic philosophy (Nietzsche warning!), the core of the story is actually a wish-fulfillment fantasy where the upwardly-mobile but insecure working-class girl gets the total alpha male who has mastered hermetic sex magic. Her hidden talents are discovered and she naturally gets rich too. We're even treated to her dysfunctional mother and their conflictual relationship.
It's not all dull though. First because it's not all smooth sailing since the characters' relationships are intertwined with class/race politics, all manner of law-breaking and the overthrowing of a government. The unlikely lovebirds are clearly using each other in their own way and the romance ended up unusually believable as far as these things go. There's also a couple of love triangles of course but they're downplayed relative to the politics.
Then because she goes on a power trip (sometimes literally) and that's well done, with a good contrast with the downbeat setup and her day job. Magic made that part interesting.
And finally because of the main character's (mostly legitimate) angst and of the overall cynical tone. Much of the messy plot hangs on her indecisivess.
An odd mix of realism and wish-fulfillment really.
Bonus points for the made up religions which are for once tragically lacking in Buddhism (though not in ascetism).
Some might find it a bit sickening how badly the girl becomes dependent on the guy's approval and how much she throws away for him. Her vulnerability is endearing and understandable given the circumstances but if you don't like this sort of character development...
There's also supposed to be some Spinoza in there but I didn't get it. Do tell if you got it!