1966’s The City is either the third or the fourth volume in Jane Gaskell’s Atlan series1.
Having survived many terrible betrayals, Cija is no longer a naïve, ignorant maiden. She is armed with caution fueled by bitter experience.
Nevertheless, no sooner does she arrive in the City than she is sold to a brothel, escaping only to discover that her rescuers have their own brothel. The seeming rescue was a ruse to avoid paying for Cija.
The probable lifespan of a sex slave in Cija’s new home is short. Cija would flee except that her new owners have taken the precaution of whisking away Cija’s infant, Seka, as a hostage. Luckily for Cija, her very first client is kind-hearted Miyak, who takes pity on Cija and wastes little time orchestrating a rescue for mother and baby.
Miyak is an exception to all the nasty men with whom Cija has had previous experience. He is not hiding entrenched malice, unbounded greed, or unquenchable libido behind a pleasant façade. Despite Miyak’s mother’s qualms about this stranger Miyak has brought home, Cija is given a comfortable place in the family household.
It soon dawns on Cija that the city she now calls home is none other than the City of her birth. Interred by her Dictatress mother in a tower, raised and educated in isolation, Cija is unfamiliar with the reality of the City. She finds the City filthy and its people superstitious, suspicious, and oppressed.
Worse is to come. While the Cija immured in the tower was known to most in the City as a faceless figure at the centre of dire and salacious rumours, there are people who knew better just who Cija was. Most of them want her dead. Cija would be sensible to keep a low profile and hope that none of her enemies learn that she has returned home.
Of course, she fails. Will she be reconciled with her mother? Murdered by her half-brother lover? Sacrificed by her priest father? Or will she be carried off into the jungle by a libidinous ape-man?
This series is set in an ancient world — but not one that could lead to our world through any plausible path. Animals from widely divided eras live together. Lizard people and humans can produce viable young. Perhaps there is some plausible explanation in the next and last book but the setting isn’t at all explained in this volume. Of course, it’s no more implausible as an ancient past than Middle Earth or the Hyborian Age.
Cija does learn over the course of the series. The Cija from The Serpent would not have understood what a brothel is, let alone that she had been immured in one. The fact that men existed at all was a surprise. Cija is now a world-weary, rightfully suspicious woman. Unfortunately, she’s still not the sharpest crayon in the box, and this is a world that is in most ways stacked against her. Her hard-won caution does her very little good.
With very few exceptions, Miyak being one2, men in Cija’s world are a malevolent, untrustworthy lot, wanting only to exploit Cija, often in ways she will not survive. It says a lot about the deplorable selection of men available in this ancient world that Cija’s best partner is a semi-intelligent ape-man.
Gaskell’s world-building is eccentric, and the plot is highly episodic3. Nevertheless, the book does move along nicely as Cija escapes from one dreadful trap into its even more alarming successor. One may easily snark at Cija’s intellectual limitations, but she does have a talent: she survives despite blindly stumbling into one catastrophe after another. Even if she only survives by the skin of her teeth.
Even in an era of uneven book distribution, the Atlan books were easily available. Judging from sales figures, their audience was enthusiastic and continental in extent. But the series seems to have appealed to a target audience that no longer exists, or so I judge from the fact that The City and the series of which it is a part have been out of print for decades. There aren’t even any ebook editions. While it’s true that the series is problematic in many ways, more problematic works of similar vintage remain in print. Why the difference? I cannot guess.
1: The series has either four or five volumes. The first volume was later republished as two books.
2: Miyak is, however, extremely naïve. He frequents the brothel that he does because he believes the women there genuinely like him.
3: Come to think of it, the book, and the series, are episodic and thus quite suitable for a (raunchy and bloody) television adaptation.