Review: City of Nightmares – Rebecca Shaeffer
by Rebecca Schaeffer
Series: City of Nightmares #1
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: January 10, 2023
Genres: Young Adult, Science Fiction
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Gotham meets Strange the Dreamer in this thrilling young adult fantasy about a cowardly girl who finds herself at the center of a criminal syndicate conspiracy, in a city where crooked politicians and sinister cults reign and dreaming means waking up as your worst nightmare.
Ever since her sister became a man-eating spider and slaughtered her way through town, nineteen-year-old Ness has been terrified—terrified of some other Nightmare murdering her, and terrified of ending up like her sister. Because in Newham, the city that never sleeps, dreaming means waking up as your worst fear.
Whether that means becoming a Nightmare that’s monstrous only in appearance, to transforming into a twisted, unrecognizable creature that terrorizes the city, no one is safe. Ness will do anything to avoid becoming another victim, even if that means lying low among the Friends of the Restful Soul, a questionable organization that may or may not be a cult.
But being a member of maybe-cult has a price. In order to prove herself, Ness cons her way into what’s supposed to be a simple job for the organization—only for it to blow up in her face. Literally. Tangled up in the aftermath of an explosive assassination, now Ness and the only other survivor—a Nightmare boy who Ness suspects is planning to eat her—must find their way back to Newham and uncover the sinister truth behind the attack, even as the horrors of her past loom ominously near.
Look, when the book’s blurb starts out with “ever since her sister became a man-eating spider”, how in the world could I not pick up this book? And while I was initially put off by the cover (seriously, it doesn’t not match the book at all), I’m so glad I picked this up. It’s a quirky story but one I very much enjoyed.
For over a hundred years, people have been afraid of Nightmares. If you dream, you have a chance of turning into a Nightmare, a representation of the thing you fear the worst. Sometimes it means you turn into a lizard man but are otherwise still the same mentally, while some turn into giant spider monsters. People regularly take pills to prevent dreams.
Ness ended up in the big city of Newham after her sister turned into a Nightmare and killed her father and several others in their small town. She fell in with the Friends of the Restful Soul after getting therapy from them and her tiny brick-walled room is the only safe space she knows. Eight years later, Ness is still terrified of Nightmares, constantly wearing gloves to prevent contagion and taking extra pills just in case. Even the thought of one makes her cower and hide so it’s not a surprise she’s terrible at all the assignments the Friends give her. But when her latest assignment goes sideways, she’s forced to face her fears – if she can survive them.
The world building is great. It seems to be set in a sort of 1920s era with Prohibition and speakeasys and flapper hats. The entire premise – turning into your worst nightmare – is inventive and enthralling. Newham is corrupt to an almost hilarious extent. No one even blinks when the mayor’s pet pterodactyl gobbles up a journalist who asks a prying question. People clamor to watch one of the city’s superheroes defeat the latest monster du jour and then get autographs from them signed in the monster’s blood. Ness has a sort of cynical resignation to the whole thing which is at times dryly humorous and at other times, well, horrifying.
Watching Ness grow from being a complete self-described coward to someone who can stand up for herself was very enjoyable. Of course, she has a lot of help from her friends. I loved Priya whose goal in life was to become a Nightmare hunter and who argued constantly with her sister about it. And then there’s Cy, the mysterious person who rescues Ness. Cy’s the one who makes Ness start to question her fear of Nightmares and she definitely didn’t thank him for that at first!
As for cons, there were moments where it got too preachy, where the author felt the need to wallop the reader over the head with a particular revelation. And yes, it was based on the story, but at times they felt too complicated for Ness to come up with at that point in time. That’s not to say I didn’t like the themes. There’s a lot around how the media represents frankly abusive relationship. My favorite, though, was exploring Ness’s idea of safety. Ever since she survived her sister’s Nightmare by hiding in a kitchen cabinet, her idea of safety is hiding herself away and hoping the monsters don’t notice her, like her tiny room at the Friends. But when that safety is ripped from her, what else is left?
Overall, while I had some quibbles, I enjoyed the book and its fascinating world. This looks like it might be a series, and if so, I’ll definitely read the next book! Recommended for anyone looking for a YA fantasy about how a regular person survives life in a dystopian, Gotham-like city.
Content notes: View Spoiler »Violence (including death and gun violence), gore, dismemberment, child abduction, explosions, near-drowning, kidnapping, panic attacks, PTSD « Hide Spoiler