Liz Williams’ Worldsoul hits the ground fast and comes up running. The first in a planned trilogy, the book is a natural progression from Williams’ Detective-Inspector Chen novels. In those, what started as a mashup between classical Chinese mythology and urban noir rapidly expanded its cosmology, gleefully mashing up Chinese, Indian and other elements into a single creative stew.
Here, Williams starts with the mashup already in place. The city, Worldsoul, is the center of creation (more or less) in a cosmology where stories have power and a reality all their own, and being a Librarian is one of the trickiest jobs there is. The city’s derived from Earth but not of it, and its Quarters reflect various aspects of Earth cultural tradition. The North Quarter, for example, harkens back to Scandinavian culture and myth, while the Eastern is overseen by the mysterious Suleiman and draws its flavor from Middle Eastern roots.
Things are not well in Worldsoul, of course. The powerful alien Skein, who oversaw the city’s wellbeing and magics, have disappeared, and a shipload of adventurers has gone off to find them. The city’s Court has a traitor in its midst – the Inspector-General Jonathan Deeds, a demoniac descendent of Loki with plans of his own – while the Library appears to be leaking reality at the seams, and letting things in that have no business in Worldsoul. Monstrous flowers (seriously) have been attacking the city from an unknown source, causing mass destruction. And then there’s the ifrit that Suleiman has imprisoned in a cage of meteorite iron, the deeply irritated demon lord who spends entirely too much time shape-changed into a camel, Deeds’ inhuman assistant (who takes the term “spiked heels” a bit literally) and more, all interacting with, double-crossing, and otherwise using each other to their own benefit and, maybe, the city’s as well.
But the story really belongs to two characters, the Librarian Mercy, and the alchemist Shadow. The former has links to the wolf-clans of the North, as well as to the mysterious expedition in search of the Skein, and stumbles into Deeds’ plot to unleash Loki’s monstrous children on the city. The latter, summoned by Suleiman to transform the ifrit, gets more than she bargained for – and a psychic passenger as she sets out with the demon lord to seek the origins of the devastating flowers. And we haven’t even gotten to the nightmare goddess with the sleigh full of talking severed heads, all of whom can breathe fire as needed, or the shout-out to the “Holdstockian layer” of narrative, or…
In short, there’s a lot going on here, and it’s all going on at once. Readers hoping for a gentle introduction to the world and its metaphysics, lengthy explanations of the characters, or a simple road map as to Worldsoul’s politics and history are fresh out of luck, as the book starts with things happening now and never lets up. Those not willing to go with the flow (and trust that all will become clear) are liable to find themselves lost; those who can throw themselves into the deep end can enjoy the huge cast of characters, wild scene changes, and breadth of scope that Williams presents from chapter to chapter.