Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

  • Author: Sam J. Miller
  • Publisher: Ecco Books
  • Published Date: April 2018

This novel is difficult to put into words. As I write this, I just finished reading the book mere minutes ago. It’s one that left me already thinking about it. Revisiting it in my head. A feeling of unease. Of amazement.

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller is about the floating city (as in, on water, I think) of Qaanaaq in the Arctic Circle and a few of its citizens–the ones who live in the outskirts in one way or another. There is a disease called the breaks. Fill, a young man, received them from his now ex-boyfriend. The breaks makes you hallucinate: visions, sounds, memories…everything. Slowly but surely, it literally breaks you. And you die. Some last years. Others days. Fill wants to find out about the breaks. Wants to survive.

They keep patients with incurable diseases in The Cabinet. Once in, there is no out. Ankit’s mother is in there. Has been in there since Ankit was a little girl. Now she works for an Arm manager, and she wants to see her mother. Except The Cabinet will not let her in.

Kaev is a beam fighter. That is, he fights in tournaments, trying to throw his opponents into the water. The first to get soaked is the first to lose. His employer is a ruthless woman, Go, who seemingly just uses him to control the fights. But Kaev is a man who wants more than just beam fighting. He’s missing something; he just doesn’t know what.

And finally, there’s the woman who rode into Qaanaaq on an orca, accompanied also by a polar bear. The orcamancer. What she wants, no one knows. Soq, a nonbinary character, is also tasked by Go to find out everything they can about this strange woman.

Slowly, these people’s stories intertwine into one, leading them down similar paths.


This is a book where the plot slowly unravels as it goes. It has a slow burn quality to it. And it’s one of those rare instances that is pretty much equally character-focused and plot-focused. It’s one where seemingly nothing happens–only everything is happening.

The worldbuilding is done very well. Although we are essentially thrown into the middle of things (there is no “new kid in town” perspective), we learn more about the floating city throughout the novel. Why this remarkable engineering feat was even built in the first place. What happened to the mainlands…. There are eight Arms of the city, along with a central hub, that we learn about. And we see it all–from the poorest of the poor, sleeping in boxes stacked on top of each other; to the ultra-rich who can pay their way out of almost anything.

This novel is described as one of hope. And I think that’s where its strength lies. It is hopeful. It shows that even in the darkest of times, hope is still possible. Will you finally be allowed to see your mother? Will you find the cure or how to control it? Will you….? Maybe today.  

Blackfish City is about hope. Hope to be reunited with family. Hope to be whole. Hope to find the answers you’re looking for. It’s a book that leaves you wondering. The ending still leaves questions unanswered, which some might not like, but it gives enough to satisfy. Others might find it too slow-moving. However, these things didn’t bother me.

As I said before, hope is the driving force of this novel. It’s unlike many things I have read. The closest comparison I could make would be Claire North. I think people who like North’s novels might also like what Miller has to offer in this new book. I would certainly recommend giving it a shot. Go find out about the woman who seems to be able to control an orca and a polar bear.

[I received an ARC of Blackfish City from Ecco Press in exchange for an honest review.]

One comment

  1. !!! I love miller’s stuff (and he does seem to focus on hope? Stories of people historically disadvantaged fighting their difficulties?) and reading your review I am so pumped to read this book!!

    Like

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