Book Club, Books, Charlie Jane Anders, Exclusive, The City In The Middle Of The Night

The City In The Middle Of The Night by Charlie Jane Anders exclusive cover reveal and excerpt


Charlie Jane Anders’ debut novel All The Birds In The Sky was one of the best SF stories in recent memory, so we’re very excited to host the cover reveal for her follow-up The City In The Middle Of The Night, thanks to Titan Books.

Coming in February next year, the book is described as “a standalone literary scifi novel set on a planet that has never-changing zones of day and night, time means only what the government proclaims, and lost souls and disappeared bodies are shadow-bound and savage. One such pariah, sacrificed to the night, forms a bond with an enigmatic beast, and will rise to take on the entire planet–before it can crumble beneath the weight of human existence.”

We’ve also got an exclusive excerpt, which you can read below…

The City In The Middle Of The Night is available on 19 February in hardcover from Titan Books.

I

Back in grammar school, they taught us all about crocodiles, and what to do if you ever meet one.

Don’t try to run, because you’re on their territory, and they can ensnare

you in one of those long tentacles before your first stride. Plus they can clear vast distances with their powerful hind legs, each one the size of an adult human. And their strong forelegs can climb any surface and dig through almost any barrier.

You might be able to hide, because we don’t know how they sense their prey, since they can’t rely on vision or hearing in this pitch-dark wind. They may use scent, or maybe they can detect motion somehow. Nobody’s ever hidden from one, but you might be the first.

The only viable strategy is to attack. Crocodiles do have a few weaknesses that a human can exploit. They have soft spots on the underbelly, where the carapace doesn’t extend all the way around. I know where all their major organs are, because I watched Frank the butcher carve one up for some fancy banquet after a few hunters had gotten lucky, returning from the night in one piece and with fresh game.

But their main weakness, the easiest one to reach, is the exact center of the pincer that’s right in front of me, sticking out of the creature’s head. The impenetrable shell contains two knife-sharp claws, but at their midpoint is a forest of a hundred wriggling tongues, each one about the size of your little finger. If you manage to strike at the pincer’s heart, and hit those slimy appendages, then you might kill it in one stroke.

That pincer is so close I can feel one of its edges scrape my throat. It could slice my head off before I could react. I try to summon all my courage, brace my feet on the slippery ground to deliver one great blow to the warm spot at the pincer’s fulcrum. I can do this, I’m strong enough.

I raise both fists.

Then I stop. Because I feel warm breath coming from below the pincer, where the creature’s mouth is. And that part of me that always stands back and pulls everything apart, instead of just blurting out words, is asking: Why is a crocodile’s mouth so far away from all these tongues, anyway? She can’t possibly use them to taste anything or make any sounds. Why are they right at the center of this armored scissor, vulnerable yet shielded?

I lower my fists. Instead, I push my unprotected face forward, almost losing my balance in the dark. The pincer is all around my head and neck now, but it doesn’t close and kill me. Instead, this crocodile lets me press forward and push my frostburnt nose into the moist heat of her slimy warm grubs. They brush my face, and my head floods with urgent smells and disorienting sounds, a beautiful ugliness, too much to handle, like I’m out-of-my-head drunk with no up or down, nothing but a whirl of sensory overload.

I almost keel over, but somehow I stay upright until—

—I’m somewhere else. I’m way out in the middle of the night now, surrounded by huge sheets of ice on all sides. A mountain of ice and snow sidles past, along the horizon. We’re thousands of kilometres farther out than any human has gone in twenty-five generations, since we lost all our scoutships and all-terrain vehicles.

Somehow I can see in the dark now, except that I realize I’m not seeing at all. I’m using alien senses, and my mind is turning them into sight and sound.

I tear through the landscape so fast the wind can’t keep up. A sudden storm could rip me apart, the tundra could swallow me, but I don’t even care. My back legs push against the ground and the ice surrenders, while my smaller front legs rip into the slick surface, propelling me even faster and keeping my balance. I’m not running—this is something much better. I’ve never felt so much power in my body, and so many sensations flood into the ends of my two great tentacles as they taste the wind around me.

I want to laugh, and then I turn and see that four other crocodiles are running alongside me, grasping some spiky devices in their tentacles and guiding a sled full of some kind of precious metal. I feel a surge of pride, safety, happiness that they’re with me, and we’re going home.

Then we reach it: a huge structure in the shape of a rose with all its petals spread, a circle surrounded by elaborate crisscrossing arch shapes. Only the very top pokes above the surface, and the rest extends far below the ice, but still its beauty almost stops my heart. A glimmering city, many times larger than Xiosphant, that no human eyes have ever seen.

 

I must have blacked out, because I wake up and find the crocodile has swept me up in her tentacles and is using her front legs to brace me, while also climbing the sheer rock face that I fell down. I’m still frozen to the bone, but she has wrapped some kind of thick blanket around me that feels like something between moss and fungus. The fabric feels warm and dry, wrapped around my face with just enough slack to let me breathe. One tentacle covers my nose, and her cilia brush against my skin. I still can’t see anything, but I feel our rise in my inner ear, and even with the crocodile’s body shielding me I feel the bitter wind flow around me.

She deposits me at the same spot where the two officers pushed me over the edge. I’m on the ground before I even realize she’s laid me down, and I wriggle out of her covering only to be blinded by the faint light for a moment. The cops are long gone.

My rescuer is even bigger than the other crocodile I saw being butchered as a child—with a thick carapace and weathered skin on her legs and tentacles. There are two large indentations, one on either side of her head, which look like big sad eyes, but aren’t. Her round shell hunches as she shields herself from the sudden exposure to partial sunlight, which no crocodile can ever endure. Her pincer opens and closes, as if saying goodbye.

Before I can take a proper look, or try to communicate again, or do anything really, the crocodile has turned around, already disappearing back down the mountain.

 

From up here, Xiosphant looks like a great oval, with a bite taken out of the right side. The farmwheels keep rotating, but all the buildings have sheer faces, so the whole city is asleep.

The part of town nearest me, the Warrens, is a heavy, colorless off-black with slate rooftops and tall white-brick rectangles, but the city picks up a glow as I look farther inward, toward the farmwheels and the main shopping district. The pall lifts slowly, until my gaze hits the center of town, where the great spire of the Council House and the golden domes of the Palace gleam under a silvery light. From there, the light blazes fiercer and fiercer, until you reach the day side of town, which hurts my eyes even from here. And beyond that, the rays of the sun just poke out from behind the Young Father, though I don’t look that far, for fear of hurting my eyes. Off to my right, outside the wall in the Northern Ranges, cattle jostle each other, surrounded by high fences. The outcroppings at the base of the Young Father have mining tunnels going into them, and a few craggy shells of old treasure meteors have come to rest farther north.

Life returns to my body with an itchy soreness. My hands and feet feel as vast as this mountain range, and the blood stings as it flows into them. Even once I can move, I want to stay on this plateau forever, just watching the city go through its never-ending cycle of waking and sleeping. Striving and dying. I can look down from my rocky perch and think: Fools.

A high-pressure cloud system scuds across our strip of twilight, too high and too dense to make out any individual clouds, and staring up at it will give you a headache every time.

The thought of going back home, after what just happened, shakes me, every capillary and every inch of skin. The first time I try to stand and make my descent, I imagine the police spotting me as soon as I get back inside the city, shouting from behind their helmets, and suddenly I can’t move or breathe, as if they already have me. They’ll catch me again, they’ll know I survived, maybe this time they’ll force me into the day instead.

But after a chain of breaths, I start talking sense into myself. Nobody knows you’re alive, I tell myself. They didn’t know you were alive before, and now they’re sure you’re not. That last thought makes me laugh out loud for some reason, and I pick myself up and force my frost-stung body to climb down to the outer wall of Xiosphant.

I walk around the wall for a lifetime before I find a weak spot that they only half repaired after the last rockfall. I pull loose stones away until there’s a crack big enough for me to force myself through.

II

The streets of Xiosphant always feel narrow: so crammed with people, carts, and a few lorries that you can’t get anywhere. But now, the empty streets yawn like chasms, and the whitestone slabs and cinderblock walls amplify every footstep. Boots play a brisk rhythm off in the distance, a Curfew Patrol coming my way, and I realize that I still have plenty of fear left in me. I breathe faster. They’ll find me, a feral creature wearing nothing but a mossy blanket and torn scraps of clothing, covered with cuts and dirt.

I need to get off the street before—

A klaxon rings in the distance and echoes across town. That’s the warning bell right before the shutters open, a courtesy in case people want to make themselves presentable before they’re bathed in light. When I used to hear that bell at home, the time between that sound and the return of the sun felt never-ending, torturous. But now, I realize I have perhaps a couple hundred heartbeats until every window is thrown open and people rush onto the streets.

I can’t go home to my family, not after what we said to each other the last time I saw them. I’ll never make it back to the Gymnasium before the shutters rise, and even if I reached Bianca, she’d have to try to hide me.

I duck into an alley, hide behind garbage, sneak past slatted windows.

I realize I’m going in circles, the same five dirty streets over and over. My breath gets more and more ragged. Everywhere I look, factory buildings, warehouses,

and tenements turn their backs to me, and then I remember a place where my mom used to go when she was alive. She took me there a few times when I was out of school, and it’s not far. She always said it was her safe place. That was a long time ago, but maybe anyplace that’s truly safe can’t ever disappear.

I follow the route my mother showed me, past a linen warehouse and a chemical plant, along a series of alleys that seem even darker than the other streets around here, and then into a lane that you have to be looking right at, or you’ll miss it.

At the end of that lane, the paving stones of which are a little finer than the worn cobbles of the surrounding streets, there’s a wide ornate door made of some kind of heavy wood, but painted bright gold with crimson notes and two rows of decorative iron nails. When I reach the door, I almost fall in a dirty heap onto the mat. But I find the hidden buzzer, behind one of the elaborately carved curls of the surrounding wood.

I press, and nothing happens.

The second time I stab at the buzzer, I hear a shrill noise, then a grinding sound of cranks and pulleys, coming from all around me. The shutters are opening. I look back the way I came and see the windows of the building at the end of the lane losing their metal shields, revealing dirty panes with faces behind them.

I ring the buzzer one last time and pound the thick door with my fist, while doorways open and people flock onto the street. I’m trapped here, at the end of this blind alley.

The door swings open, and an elderly man looks down at me. He wears a looser silk tunic, to disguise his paunch, and an old-fashioned cap embroidered with golden thread, to cover his encroaching baldness. But Hernan still has the same kind eyes and wide smile, with a hint of an old pain behind them.

He squints down, and doesn’t recognize me. Then he blinks. “Sophie? Oh dear. What happened to you? You’d better get inside, before people think we’ve started having mud-wrestling in here.”

Hernan doesn’t ask any more questions, just hustles me indoors, past an ornate waiting room that I remember from my mother’s visits, full of dark-stained wood, bright carpets, and slow pendulums. A moment later, we’re in a part of the building that I’ve never seen: the living quarters and service areas. Plain brick walls, cold stone floor. At the end of this hallway, a door opens to reveal a washroom with a big tub.

I try to thank Hernan with what’s left of my voice, and he just smiles.

“Tell me all about it when you’re yourself again.” He stoops and fills the tub to the lip with water so hot I breathe steam. Then Hernan leaves, shutting the door behind him, and I drop my blanket.

As soon as the hot water touches my skin, I break apart. Feeling comes back into my fingers and toes, and my skin glows even as I scrape layers of dirt and blood off it. I hyperventilate until I choke, and as the hot water stings all my scrapes and cuts, I let out a long, high-pitched wail. I will never be clean again, never be warm inside. I scrub until I bleed in more places, and I keep scrubbing.

The water turns murky from all the filth that was on my body, and my sinews and veins come back to life, and I finally let myself feel everything

that just happened. They took me away. They tore me away from you. You cried and shouted. They paraded me in the street. People threw things. My classmate threw something. They laughed at my fear, like they were hungry for it. They forced me up the mountain, they pushed me into darkness.

As these things go from being “moments that I need to survive right now” to “things that will always have happened to me,” I start to shiver. I feel so chilled that the scalding water might as well be solid ice. Once I start, I can’t make myself stop. The shivers build and build, until water goes all over the floor tiles. I hug myself, and I shed tears that I can’t blame on windburn, and they taste much too pungent, like the tears of a dead person. I hear myself from a tremendous distance, wailing and chattering my teeth.

Just as my own wailing gets too loud for me to bear, and I can’t endure

this body, and I feel like I’m going to leave a hundred pieces of myself in this tub, another thought comes, that almost drives out all the others: I was a crocodile, running across the tundra with all of my friends.





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