With the release of the first installment of The City series, adult readers have been inaugurated into Darren Shan's peculiar, dark sense of humor. This bestselling author has a talent for creating the grungiest, vilest, most abominable human beings imaginable and somehow making them interesting and even relatable (in certain cases). His twisted plots and depraved humor give his books a distinctive flavor that is different from other works and ends up being a welcome change.
This second book follows PROCESSION OF THE DEAD, unfolding on a parallel timeline and spotlighting many of the main characters in the first book. The likable Al Jeery is a new protagonist, a servant to the monstrous gangster known simply as "The Cardinal." We return to the disturbing territory of this crime boss, a man who has never left "The City" for long. His territory is a peculiar organism whose dirty streets have become breeding grounds for the worst kind of scum. Hoods, lackeys, crooked cops and street maidens consort and sully every corner, hotel, restaurant and alley, all while worshipping and living in fear of the world's most powerful man.
The Cardinal's dreamlike City is somehow unbreakable, an odd monument to his fantastic and supreme power. It is tied so closely with the man as to make one wonder if he could even exist outside it. Mysterious and merciless, the Cardinal focuses only on his empire and the scope of his power, removing any challengers and leaving his associates without any evidence of their existence. Before long, it's clear that the Cardinal somehow possesses indistinct and unworldly abilities, the power to predict and control the world around him down to the last detail. His gifts somehow relate back to a group called the Ayuamarca and to the Incan priests who wander blindly through the streets. They are the ancient remains of a civilization that has managed to survive within the confines of a seedy and fiendish place.
Whereas the Cardinal and his understudy, Capac Raimi, had been the main characters in the first installment, Al Jeery is the center of this second one and seems a much more human (or at least a less threatening) sort. The Cardinal has berated him before for his human weakness and for lacking the ambition that those in power generally possess. What Jeery does possess is some unexplained ability to heal people when he chooses, and after receiving his recent promotion because of the Cardinal's misgivings about a murder, Jeery begins the long and difficult process of tracking down her killer and discovering the truth. In pursing this, he encounters some disturbing individuals, the scariest being the sadistic serial killer and assassin Paucar Wami. Unbeknowst to Jeery, Wami has ties to him that have been kept secret and land him in danger even while helping him uncover the mystery.
Though Shan's series is a crime thriller at its heart, there are many elements of horror and fantasy in it. Both installments employ elements of the supernatural, and Shan is careful to keep these consistent with the story and in keeping with the dark tone. The mystery is quite well done, and even practiced readers of mysteries will find guesswork about plotlines extremely challenging. This is one of the many reasons why Shan's books are so worth reading. Audiences will be surprised by the end over how much they'll look forward to reading the final installment --- which, by the way, you won't have to wait too long for, as CITY OF SNAKES releases in June.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on March 28, 2011