While I mainly read crime fiction and non-fiction, I occasionally stray outside of my comfort zone. Poison City is an urban fantasy/horror and when I saw it on Netgalley I was drawn to it for a number of reasons. First off, the hero Gideon Tau, is part of the Delphic Division, a sub-section of the South African Police Occult Investigative Division. As a former current affairs journalist I have come across the Occult Investigative Division, which really did exist (I'm not sure if it still does) and was tasked with investigating the spate of ritualistic and multi murders that plague that country. So I was intrigued. The second reason was that Poison City, dealing with the occult as it does, reminded me of Simon Unsworth's work. Simon wrote The Devil's Detective, a hugely impressive novel set in Hell, and so I decided to give Paul Crilly a go.
Crilly is an established children's and YA author but apparently Poison City is his first book aimed squarely at adults. From the outset I was hugely impressed. The book is a blend of modern day life - we have the Internet, the wonders of modern technology - with magic and the occult. But this is no Harry Potter. While the latter Harry Potter novels were more adult in their themes, none approached the darkness of Poison City. Demons, vampires, avenging Angels and much, much worse fill these pages and Crilly has a way of bringing this all to life in a way that might well rob the reader of sleep.
Crilly's writing is as fine as can be, he really brings locations to life. I've never been to South Africa, let alone Durban, but I really felt like I had after reading this book. The smells, the sounds, the sights; close my eyes and I was there walking those streets. And like the best crime/noir/horror it makes the reader want to visit the location, however wretched. I've read that since The Wire there are tours of the inner-cities of Baltimore, similarly since Breaking Bad there are tours of Albuquerque. Well having read Poison City I want to visit Durban, however insalubrious it might be.
Most impressively about this novel, and something I've noticed other reviewers have mixed feelings about, are the religious aspects. This comes to the fore towards latter half of the novel and forces the reader to ask serious questions as to what they believe. Without giving too much away he forces the reader to confront the contradictions at the heart of the Judeo-Christianity, how God can go from vengeful spite in the first testament, to forgiving peacenik in the second. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a religious book, please don't be put off whatever your faith or none, but as a lapsed Catholic I have to confess to finding some of this uncomfortable stuff.
If I have one criticism of Poison City, it's that Crilly perhaps tries to fit too much into one novel. There are just a few too many characters and just a few too many strands to the plot. That said, this is a hugely impressive novel and one that I heartily recommend.
4 out of 5 stars