This is a decent escapist fantasy, if you’re looking for a setting that hasn’t been done to death. If you’re looking for memorable characters, though, best look elsewhere.
Over the last several years there’s been a push for more diversity of characters and settings in fantasy, and it looks like Downum was listening. The Drowning City is populated mostly by non-white characters from a South-Asian-inspired culture – with a fantasy twist, including ghosts and spirits. The setting is this book’s biggest strength: the culture is well-developed and layered without feeling exoticized, and the scenes positively drip with sensory detail. To the point that after reading fewer than 15 pages, I put the book down to get Indian takeout. The fact that I found the descriptions so evocative but had little trouble setting the book aside sums up my experience of this novel.
The Drowning City follows the adventures of three women, who are basically indistinguishable from each other, aside from having different backstories and positions in the world. The protagonist, Isyllt, kicks off the action by arriving in Symir as a foreign spy, meant to destabilize the colonial government by providing aid to rebels. Which sounds sexy, but results in a protagonist who lacks a clear role in the developing struggle, or much motivation to take part. There’s also Xinai, who begins the story as Isyllt’s bodyguard but soon deserts to join a local terrorist group, and Zhirin, an apprentice mage. None have any personality to speak of, beyond a willingness to get into dangerous situations, and the only difference between them (beyond the variation in their assigned roles) is that the teenaged Zhirin is idealistic, while the two 20-somethings are jaded. Generic personalities kept me from investing in the characters, which forestalled any real interest in the story, with the result that even though this is an easy read with a reasonably-paced, adventure-oriented plot, it took me a long time to finish.
That said, the plot itself is fine, and may work well for younger fantasy readers or those seeking pure escapism. The writing is adequate, though definitely in the genre (as opposed to literary) category. The necromancy and magical phenomena are somewhat unusual, fit the mood of the story and aren’t over-explained. I hesitate to call it a standalone novel, because the end leaves open major questions in the political plot that may be addressed in the sequel (though that has an entirely different setting), but the book does tell a complete story. It proved to be a basically enjoyable light read, and gets points for a big, blow-everything-open climax. Still, though the sequel is supposed to be better, this one didn't provide much motivation to read on.