Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review of The Hollow City by Dan Wells


I loved Dan Wells's I am not a Serial Killer series, so when I saw that he had a new book out in the same genre, I snapped it up.  The Hollow City is not a sequel, and John Cleaver, the heroic sociopath from the I am not a Serial Killer series, does not make an appearance.  It's not even clear that this takes place in the same mythos as his previous books, although it's quite possible, as all these stories take place in our world, though with something sinister lurking beneath the surface.

The hero of this new novel is one Michael Shipman, and like John Cleaver, he has problems.  Rather than the sociopathy of John, Michael suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.  Not only does he have delusions of persecution, he sees people and things that aren't there.  The problem comes when some of the things he sees really are there, and don't go away with the drugs.

The story starts with Michael waking up in the hospital, missing two weeks of memory, with only vague recollections of a hollow city, though he has no idea what that even means.  He's soon committed to a mental hospital, where he's treated for his condition, and starts to realize that much of what he believes about his life simply is not true, but is a product of his schizophrenia.  Meanwhile, the FBI is questioning him about his activities during that missing part of his life, hoping that he can lead them to the Red Line Killer, the serial killer who has been murdering members of the Children of the Earth cult.  The same cult that kidnapped his mother before he was born.  He must learn whether the Children of the Earth are after him, and who are the mysterious Faceless Men, who only he can see, even when his drugs are effective.

It's a powerful premise, and there's a lot to recommend this book, but I kept stumbling over the primary problem with a story told from Michael's POV: that of the unreliable narrator.  Because Michael cannot distinguish what's real and what isn't, the reader is likewise in the dark.  He can guess at whether someone's real, and he'll find himself playing that game constantly (Is the FBI real, how about Michael's girlfriend?  Or the reporter?).  When Michael's suffering from full-blown paranoia it's more obvious than when he's largely in control.  I realize that this is part of the premise, but I found that I just didn't have that much tolerance for an unreliable narrator.

It also takes a little while for the book to get going.  I didn't find the scenes of Michael in the mental hospital, arguing with his doctor and trying to figure out what's real and not, that entertaining.  But once he was moving, and making his way back to the hollow city, then the story picked up, and moved rapidly to a strong conclusion.  I just wish it didn't take as long to get there.

Ultimately, I liked The Hollow City okay, but it is  nowhere near as strong as Dan Wells's John Cleaver novels.

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