Reviewed by Jack Messenger
Black Queen White City
by Sonya Kudei
Paperback: 278 pages, 16 April 2018, ISBN-13: 978-1999645311
Black Queen White City begins with a number seventeen tram sitting ‘silent and abandoned on the tracks of a turning circle on the outskirts of the city in the middle of the night. On a soft patch of grass inside the circle, a black cat with white paws sat licking its nether regions with meticulous care.’
Trams. Cats. Circles. We are immediately alerted by these allusions to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (1966) that we should expect the unexpected in Black Queen White City, an ambitious novel that aspires to paint its own universe (no less) by means of framing devices, parallel worlds and an eccentric cast of characters that includes the white city of Zagreb itself, where the author was born.
The novel also draws on other sources, most notably the local myths and legends surrounding Zagreb, plus Tolkien and Dante, and even Marvel/DC superheroes. The result is frequently compelling and thoroughly enjoyable, the novel’s dark vision balanced with humour, pastiche and irony. Central to the latter is the narratorial voice which, although far too fond of simile for its own good, deflates pretention and pomposity, and takes the magical and fantastical in its stride while relishing the description of architecture and its sinister transmogrifications.
Alejandra Pizarnik’s disturbing short story La condesa sangrienta (The Bloody Countess, 1968), based on the notorious life and legend of Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Bathory, whose alleged torture and murder of hundreds of young women places her on the same blood-soaked pedestal as Wallachian Prince Vlad the Impaler, haunts Black Queen White City, in the shape of the Black Queen herself. Her Stargate-like ascension towards apotheosis is at the heart of the novel’s finale, when the different narrative paths converge in a tumultuous Night of All Hallows.
Black Queen White City is in many ways a gothic fantasy of resurgent Evil opposed by a rag-tag group of individuals brought together by circumstance. Chief among them is Leo Solar, a Star Daimon (one of many), who falls to Earth in a flash of lightning that tears the abandoned tram and frightens the cat. Leo was unintentionally responsible for making the Black Queen as powerful as she has now become – so powerful, in fact, that she is poised to escape her prison–kingdom beneath Bear Mountain. A group of schoolchildren led by the redoubtable Stella inadvertently unleash the monstrous creatures serving the queen when they play the game Black Queen One-Two-Three. The resulting destruction alerts Dario, an ineffectual young man under the thumb of his landlady, that something odd is going on.
Black Queen White City is positively cinematic in its cutting back and forth, and its impersonations of other stories; occasionally, one can almost see the camera’s point-of-view-appropriation of the set and its background artists, particularly when Leo penetrates the circles of hell surrounding the Black Queen’s underworld fortress. Then again, perhaps this is more painterly than cinematic (the author is also a painter, and the illustrations in this review are her own); the scenes of peasant life painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for example, are recognizable ancestors to the camera framings in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Who will read Black Queen White City? Adults who enjoy fantasy and spectacle, no doubt; also a younger audience, provided they can cope with the grisly bits (but then, children often love the grisly bits). The novel works at various levels of sophistication; rather like the superhero films of today, different people will enjoy different aspects. There are problems: the aforementioned over-attachment to simile; the frequent redundant word which, I imagine, is a holdover in the author’s otherwise impressive command of her second language; a series of structural choices that militate against narrative tension and reader involvement. And while the majority of characters are enjoyable company, many readers will want more of the Black Queen than they are given. Evil characters are invariably more interesting than the good ones, and it’s likely the Black Queen would have received a warm welcome much earlier on in the novel. As it is, she is always the major threat but seldom a principal protagonist.
Black Queen White City is often charming and intriguing. As in all ‘big’ stories, there are longeurs, but the novel is undeniably the product of an immensely fertile imagination brimming with confidence. There are many stand-out scenes in addition to Leo’s arrival on Earth: Stella’s descent into the school basement, for instance; the mysterious tram; those architectural transformations. There is also an entirely unexpected illumination of a minor character that is genuinely poignant. Like Bulgakov, Sonya Kudei knows that the secret of the fantastical is to ground it in the ordinary. Zagreb never seemed so mysterious.
About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a writer and reviewer based in Nottingham, UK. Find out more about him at https://jackmessenger.co.uk