OK, let's get this out of the way. S. C. Mendes is a pseudonym, I know who's behind it and I'm not going to tell you. I will, however, point out that he's a friend and I swapped his book for one of mine. Now, it's always a dubious proposition reviewing books by friends and acquaintances, because not all of them are great and some of them are pretty awful. I'm always an honest critic and I'd rather not review a book than slate it.
After reading the first couple of chapters of this one, I knew it wasn't one of those books by friends that suck. There was an odd phrase here and there that I thought could have benefitted from some closer editing and the author was clearly more interested in characters than descriptions, but it wasn't a bad start at all, especially given where and when we start.
'The City' is set in San Francisco in 1910, so this is a period piece, even though it's not particularly overt at highlighting that. We don't feel like we're walking through gaslamp-lit streets and we don't have much of a sense for the fashion or technology of the era. But we're also in Chinatown, which adds a lot of flavour, starting out in an opium den and soon finding our way to the brothel of Shin Sho, and I'm a sucker for anything period that touches on the dark side of the Orient. Opium dens and puzzle boxes? I'm in.
Last night, I thought I'd read a few more chapters, but the damn thing took a firm hold of my throat and refused to let me go until I'd flipped the final page. It turns out that, while we technically remain around the San Francisco area throughout, we spend most of our time underneath the city, in the other city of the title, and that's a special place indeed, one that I'm going to have to be very careful not to spoil.
The back cover blurb doesn't actually take us far into the novel. Max Elliott was a police detective but, if he ever still thinks of himself as one, it's only because they put him on leave six months earlier rather than let him go. His wife, Eve, was murdered, in grisly fashion. Her bones were taken, leaving her carefully flensed skin and organs behind in a pile. Their daughter, Leigh Anne, is still missing, but Max hasn't investigated much. He just took up an opium pipe and inhaled the guilt. He certainly didn't dedicate his life to an apparently fruitless quest, as Jeremiah Hunt did in 'Eyes to See'.
Now, he had plenty of reason to feel guilty. He wasn't home when the unknown assailant killed his wife and took his daughter, because he was sleeping with Yanmei at the time in Shin Sho's brothel. Leigh Anne was twelve, Yanmei only eighteen. But he finally decides to do something about it, because his former partner, now Lt. Harris, wants him to investigate a new murder scene from the same killer. This time there are three girls left without bones, chained up in the house of a dead man. Sure, he has a personal connection to the case, but Harris knows he's the best man to delve into something so dark.
The problem is that delving quickly takes him far beyond the jurisdiction of San Francisco's finest. Shin Sho identifies the drug left at the scene as si fen, made only by the Mara, about whom he refuses to say anything else. It's only when Max goes back to his old informant, Charlie Willis, that he finds a lead on the Mara, but it's a weird one. There's a way, through the Edge, with the right introduction and the right branding on your palm and... even though I'm only fifty some pages in, I'm going to stop right there. You need to buy a Shadow.
Frankly, if you dig original horror, you should read this book and you should experience the City without any preconceptions given to you by critics like me who don't shut up quickly enough. Let me just say that the author may not build much in the way of geography or detail, but he drenches the City in all the appropriate textures and tones for us to understand what it is and how it works. He also builds quite the culture, with its dumplings and skin puppets, colour-coded shows and progressively more brutal and decadent entertainments.
I can see where some of this came from, being an exploitation film fan. I've seen 'Dumplings' and 'Cannibal Holocaust', not to miss out 'The Deer Hunter', so I recognise snippets here and there, but this isn't a ripoff of any of the films I've just mentioned or any others I'm aware of. Mendes merely uses them as flavourings in a hunter's stew of ingredients. What he's conjured up here is an entire hidden world, with its natives, its culture and its habits. It's certainly not for most but it's very much for some and that makes it a weird, cosmopolitan melting pot of dark subcultures. I adore it as a creation.
While Max remains our principal character throughout, with Harris and Charlie and others joining the fray, I should call out one more for special mention. She's Ming, the very savvy sixteen-year-old guide that Max acquires after he makes it into the city. She is an absolutely fantastic character, carefully written and with a serious story arc. For all of the visual elements I caught from exploitation films, no exploitation filmmaker is going to be able to do this justice and especially not with a sixteen-year-old sidekick.
Outside of a smattering of spelling errors here and there, the most obvious downside to the book is the fact that it ends and I mean that both sincerely and in the sense that it also ends quickly and leaves us hanging. Everything we need to know for this book is there and the plot strands that should wrap up are resolved, so we shouldn't feel cheated, but it seems clear that Max's story doesn't end when the final page is turned. There is obviously more to come, in a follow-up novel that S. C. Mendes has yet to write and I eagerly want to roll right on into that book without a gap. And I can't.
There are books by friends that I won't review, because I'm not going to put them through the embarrassment of me telling them how bad their work is. I'm going to review a lot of the better ones, for there are many of those too, in the coming months, now that I've reviewed my way through all 28 novels in the 'Humanx Commonwealth' series by Alan Dean Foster, himself an Arizona author. I'm very happy that I started with this one, though, because it's going to be a stellar novel indeed that outdoes 'The City'. ~~ Hal C F Astell