First Impressions: Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Earlier this year, I was blown away by Sam J. Miller’s debut YA novel, The Art of Starving. It was a beautiful, raw, warm, funny, and heartbreaking experience. I was already familiar with Miller’s short fiction, but that did little to prepare me for the emotional rollercoaster of protagonist Matt’s journey of self-discovery, super powers, and overcoming the perilous challenges of teenagedom.

Finishing The Art of Starving was like adding rocket fuel to my anticipation for Blackfish City, Miller’s debut adult novel. As soon as it released, I bought an audiobook copy, and, boy howdy, Miller’s outdone himself. Blackfish City is a tour-de-force of incredible, prescient worldbuilding, lush prose, and characters that are achingly real.

The eponymous city, called Qaanaaq, is a floating refugee city ruled by crime syndicates and landlords. It was constructed in the Arctic Circle, post climate change-fueled worldwide flooding, and, like any city populated by people fleeing dead or dying cultures and societies, is rich and diverse, but also suffers from many challenges. Blackfish City follows four people—Kaev, Soq, Fill, and Ankat—and their intertwined conflicts. Life in Qaanaaq is disrupted by the arrival of the Orcamancer, a woman riding an Orca, accompanied by a polar bear, and it soon becomes apparent that the lives and fates of Kaev, Soq, Fill, and Ankat are entwined with the mysterious visitor’s arrival. It’s a story about privilege and self-identification, hope, colliding cultures, and oppression. Like all of Miller’s work, it has a lot to say about the state of the world, and the dangers we face moving forward if things don’t change.

As searing as the personal conflicts are, and as engaging as the mystery surrounding the Orcamancer and the breaks is, I think my favourite aspect of the novel is its tremendous worldbuilding. Miller has effortlessly created a setting that breathes life, and presents many faces, each of which gives us a better understanding of the city and its residents.

One of my favourite examples of this rich worldbuilding is an offhand thought by one of the characters about the “cancer” years. The world of Blackfish City isn’t without its health problems, and is, in fact, centered around a sexually-transmitted disease called “the breaks”, but Miller, in a manner that’s almost hopeful in its brevity, drops a huge bomb, and then just… let’s it sit there. Like it’s normal. Like it’s something that’s been celebrated, accepted, and then moved past. There’s no long-winded exposition about how cancer was cured. It just was. And in that off-handed way, Miller gives the reader hope about a world that, while breaking down in some ways, is progressing in others.

I also love the way that Miller adapts and blends traditional Inuit and First Nations mythologies and cultures within his futuristic, almost post-apocalyptic themes and setting. Qaanaaq is a blend of real world cultures, but Miller’s deft and gentle hand allows all of those people to coexist, even as they come together to form something wholly new.

I’m only halfway through, but it’s clear that Blackfish City is one of 2017’s best novels, and Miller himself is on his way to stardom.