(2016) Paul Crilley, Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99, hrdbk, 343pp, ISBN 978-1-473-63158-8
As a child, Durban was always that city. If the names Blacksand, Lankhmar or any other roguish hotbed ring a bell, you can imagine what it was like for a young South African fantasy nut, passing through every year to see relatives. The filth, humidity and sharp divide between haves and have-nots. The constant onslaught of bribe-takers, beggars and street salesmen. Every drug you could think of, surging through the city like an onrushing tide.
Thus, Poison City immediately strikes me as the perfect name for this book. Crilley captures the slow, sordid nature of South African bureaucracy in a chillingly accurate fashion. His work of urban fantasy gives the reader a glimpse of a wide ranging fantasy underground, but focuses the action with a razor sharp precision towards the aforementioned city. The protagonist, Gideon Tau, takes what appears to be a stock approach in terms of back-story: the murder of a close female relative (his daughter) serves as the catalyst for his call to action, in an admittedly overused fashion.
However, Crilley legitimises this approach by demonstrating the utter emotional desolation Gideon experiences. One brief paragraph has him sitting in his car before going into work, attempting a daily ritual of pretence; he must build himself up every single morning, and fake being balanced and healthy. Scenes like this ground the character in a very sympathetic way, turning him into a fully realised character rather than yet another grizzled, stubbled, mildly alcoholic man.
The nature of South Africa is also explored in depth; the latter part of the novel, without going into detailed spoilers, aptly demonstrates the divided nature of a society that is scarred by such a turbulent political history.
The inclusion of magic and monsters does nothing to soften the harsh reality here. Gideon feels helpless and broken; for all of his power, he couldn't save his daughter, or become the hero she thought of him as.
The overall plot treads familiar ground, but the richness of the setting and attention to detail firmly cements the narrative of a fantastic situation, firmly anchoring it in a real place. Every abandoned building and ramshackle shanty town is drawn in clear, precise strokes. Crilley never exaggerates the surroundings, instead using the fantasy elements to provide a startling contrast with the brutal mundanity of the setting.
The magic used in Poison City reflects South Africa with perfect accuracy. A mishmash of cultures, beliefs and methods that somehow manages to thrive and coexist. Gideon himself uses magic from Asia, central Africa and Europe in the course of a single scene, taking time to explain how he acquired these powers as the narrative moves along.
The explanations in Poison City never overstay their welcome, imparting the information neatly and subtly so that, by the last page, the reader is both entertained and enriched in the lexicon of various magical powers. As an urban fantasy aficionado, I can safely say that Poison City has joined works such as The Dresden Files and Iron Druid Chronicles as a solid and entertaining example of the genre.
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