Book/Author and Year Published: Nightmare City by Jack Conner (2014)

Reviewer: Bethany

Age/Genre: Dystopian Thriller

Preferred Reading Environment: Take this time to enjoy a bath – and appreciate the clean water!

Reading Accoutrements: Make yourself a Green Appletini. Toxic waste never tasted so good.

Content Notes: Kidnapping, Torture, Human Experimentation, Violence, Drug Use, Death

Halloween is fast approaching! So, in the spirit of the season, I decided to read a thriller that includes zombies, automatons, cyborgs, alchemy, and people with mutation-caused fishy qualities.

Nightmare City follows Katya Ivreski, a young thief who finds herself running through the streets of Upper Lavorgna after she is caught stealing from a powerful and sadistic (and alchemical-addicted) mob boss, named Sedic. Her only hope is to ask for help from another mob boss, Ravic.

Ravic is muscular, charismatic, and old enough to be graying. He regularly participates in the coliseum-style fights that he uses as a form of punishment, entertainment, reparation, and income to rule over his corner of the city. Katya first sees Ravic in one such fight, mowing down tens of zombies with nothing but a chainsaw. She is wowed by the impression Ravic makes and asks him for a job, and subsequently protection from the mob boss she stole from.

Little does Kat know that Ravic is preparing for war with a different mob boss in the city. Loqrin is a sadist who inherited his corner of the city from another sadist and so on for several decades. Ravic suspects that Loqrin is behind a rash of mysterious attacks on his people, but he has no proof. He sends Kat into Loqrin’s harem as a spy to find out what she can about the odd, ghost-like creatures that are killing his middle-managers, and hopefully to determine what Loqrin’s ultimate plan might be. It’s more dangerous to infiltrate Loqrin’s harem than Kat originally expects; Loqrin likes to inflict pain and he experiments on those in his harem regularly.

The plot is pretty thrilling by itself, but what makes this story so perfect for Halloween is really the setting. Upper Lavorgna sits on top of the ruins of several iterations of cities built by long-dead civilizations. These lower cities make up an extensive underground system of tunnels where one could easily get lost. The topmost city, where the people of “today” live, is backed up on one side to the Atomic Sea, a violently stormy ocean that no human can swim in because of the chemicals and nuclear waste that have made it toxic. The fish meat that comes from the Atomic Sea must go through a decontamination process before people can eat it; if a person consumes “infected” fish, they go through an unpleasant mutation process that can result in death or, in milder cases, physical changes including growing scales, gills, fins, or claws.

The city of Upper Lavorgna is divided into Wards, which are each run by a mob boss. The council of mob bosses consults with the Guild of Alchemists, a respected and educated group of old white men, to create order among the chaos that nuclear war and illness have caused in the city. Often, the powerful men of the city use the extremely rare automatons (entirely mechanical beings – very expensive and hard to create) or harder-to-control humonculi (programmable, artificially created humanoids) to enforce their rule. Meanwhile, the everyday people work 12 hour days in dangerous factories and warehouses, live in decaying and dilapidated buildings left standing after a nuclear war and general disrepair have taken their toll, and avoid the resurrected (zombies) and humonculi that roam the streets and attack the unsuspecting.

Overall, the atmosphere of Upper Lavorgna (which seems to be perpetually dark, cloudy, and on the verge of rain) is dreary. The people seem to lack purpose, struggling to find the basic necessities to survive. Katya is no different, a thief with very little ambition except to make it to the next day. 

Nightmare City is told from the perspective of Katya, so we hear a lot of her opinions regarding the people around her. At the beginning of the book, I worried that she was too judgmental of the choices people made to make life in such a miserable city more bearable for themselves. She often speculates that this random stranger or that random shop owner are probably addicted to the illegal “alchemicals” that have pervaded the city. Early in the book, she interacts with a prostitute and, though she bums a cigarette from the woman and considers her an ally, Kat clearly thinks that becoming a prostitute would be a step down from her current situation. 

Surprisingly, Kat actually has an impressively heroic nature when it comes down to it. When it becomes clear that Loqrin’s ultimate plan will destroy Upper Lavorgna, she works hard to stop the power-crazed mob boss and save the city. But my favorite aspect of Katya’s nature is her need to protect individuals she has taken under her wing. In Loqrin’s harem, Katya befriends a young woman named Heather (one of the only people sober enough to understand what’s going on) who helps Kat to figure out the terrors that are occurring in this Ward. When Heather is taken by Loqrin for nefarious purposes, Kat endangers her own life to rescue her friend.

This book is an intriguing mix of 1920’s-style mobsters, steampunk, horror, and Camelot. I was impressed that, despite the book’s incredibly fast pace, Conner didn’t introduce new concepts at the last minute to explain away a situation; all of the concepts in the book are introduced organically to make the story flow seamlessly. 

Even though this book was darker than my usual tastes, I can’t wait to read the second installment in this duet! I was also interested to learn that there is a parallel series, called The Atomic Sea, set in the same world as Nightmare City.

What’s your favorite book that you consider “dark?”

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