Finished the book and I still do not know who or what the ever so important Helen was supposed to be. It is very confusing.
Ahem, we'll get back to that. Aurorama, by the end, reminded me a lot of The Court of the Air in both its strengths and its weaknesses. That is, both books have extremely strong and entertaining worldbuilding, with a lot of great details and ideas and nooks and crannies that make exploring the world therein a rich experience. But, both books seem to get so wrapped up in that side of things that they never quite got around to making me care about their characters, or fully understand what was actually going on.
You can see why this would be a problem. Aurorarama was full of moments that had a great Sense of Wonder thing going on, but there were others that should have had a similar impact, but lost it due to confusion as to what was happening and what was or wasn't important. Valtat's prose is pretty great throughout, but at times it feels that crafting it distracts the book from actually explaining things that we need to know.
I should add very quickly that there is one major caveat regarding the prose itself. It is positively riddled with puns. Groaner upon groaner, often used as normal terms that the people of Valtat's beautifully-realized arctic city would just throw around; as though some reference to America or New York had to be part of every other word that I used in my normal day. It doesn't make a lot of sense.
Back to the story, though, my major problem came along with something that I usually like. I very much enjoy it when a story throws in references to things in a past that we never see, when a feeling of continuity is given. (As an example, there's an amazing episode of The Venture Bros.
that is presented as the second episode of a three-part story that we never see the beginning and end of.) But Aurorarama goes a little too far with this kind of thing, to the point where the reader doesn't know which knowledge they should be trying to retain and which is just colorful background. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and like to think that I'm pretty good at keeping track of these worlds, but when I'm told that someone whose name I never heard before died saving the city alongside the Lobster Girls, that is not enough background for me to understand her importance every time she's brought up again throughout the book, especially not when she becomes intrinsic to the plot in a way that's never really clear. It feels like the book is trying to do too much and loses track of itself. The city of New Venice would have made a great travelogue novella with no real plot.
But there is a plot, and it's hard to follow -- which would be acceptable if the characters were likable. But they really aren't, I'm afraid. Our heroes, Brentford and Gabriel, are interesting enough for awhile, but I never felt much affection for them, nor agitation at their peril. They're just kind of there, anchoring a fascinating setting full of fun side characters with their own unexemplary selves. That's not even getting into how ill-served the book's female characters are. (Ok, I'll get into that just a touch: They are usually perfect cyphers to affect their male counterparts, and it seemed like we were supposed to find one character at fault for herself being hypnotized and used, which is nonsensical and I must charitably chalk up to more of the book not being clear, rather than some bizarre slut-shaming.)
So, I'll grant that a lot of what I've just written makes three stars seem awfully generous. Let me clarify, then, that there are some positvely sparkling parts of Aurorarama. The setting is wonderful, and the city really does come alive, especially in the first part. One can often feel the bite of the cold or the warmth of various drugs, one can imagine the strange bohemian lifestyle (pop jazz in 1908? that part doesn't make sense, but let's move on...), and one can feel the disturbing undercurrents of a place that was meant to be a utopia. The way that rules intended to make New Venice a wonderful place are twisted, and the ways that oppression of the indigenous peoples is passed off as "respecting their traditions" are done wonderfully. It is a great setting beautifully described, I just wish that the story had matched it.