REVIEW: City of Nightmares by Rebecca Schaeffer

The city buzzes with life in City of Nightmares by Rebecca Schaeffer. Citizens piss on the grimy walls. Pterodactyls fly above tall buildings. Speakeasies hide beneath the city’s secrets while Nightmare hunters fly in from the sky to slay dragons. Casinos shaped like golden dragon eggs encase villains and their sharp smirks. Advertisements promise Newham’s fearful citizens a life of immortality. The world is refreshing, funny, and dark.

City of NightmaresIn City of Nightmares, people transform into their worst fears after just one irreversible, slimy nightmare. Every day Ness lives her childhood fear, one bringing back memories of her sister, including the people that died. Ness Crane is just a simple kid trying to stay off the streets.  Friends of the Restless Soul is a cult providing door-to-door therapy for families dealing with post-Nightmare trauma. Ness and her best friend hand out nonsense pamphlets to these families in the hope that no one turns into an eldritch horror. Priya is a warrior girl with a gentle, vulnerable side prepared to rip the world apart to protect her friends. Combat boots. Ombre hair. Excited about killing. Priya’s only there until someone turns into a Nightmare, and she can add it to her demon hunter resume. When that day rears its horrifying head, the director of the organization kicks Ness out for repeated mistakes, leaving her with no place to stay. Ness has PTSD and tends to panic first, think later. Surprising absolutely no one, this causes total destruction and chaos wherever she goes.

Every time this happens, I know it’s going to have consequences. But in those moments, I don’t care. It’s like my mind goes blank, and there’s only the fear.

Ness is a respectable teen, a bonafide scam artist. After a lot of wrangling, the director gives her a job in exchange for a room and a meal. Cy, a kind boy with eyeliner, helps her with a big mail bag. Events lead them onto a boat deck, where Ness very comically threatens Cy with a sample of pepper spray when she believes he’s a blood-sucking vampire about to eat his next victim. In an awkward disaster, Cy helps Ness to shore after a traumatic life-threatening situation. Due to being severely afraid of all Nightmares, Ness expects him to murder her after arriving on shore. He mostly just wants to sleep in the cottage, much to her confusion. That’s the entertaining thing about this book. Every reader wishes they could be the hero but deep down knows they are the disaster coward just trying to make it home for a full eight hours of sleep.

Being the only suspects puts them into a bloody, threatening dilemma. Every reporter is after their story, leaving them trying to solve a mystery in a city swarming with police corruption, conspiracy theories, and cults.

It’s a cruel, dreadful world for teens. They flee their abusive families and parents trying to sell them to harvesters, child-eating Nightmares, and child traffickers. Around them are predators and dangers, every choice on the edge of a knife. Adults create their world, but it’s the kids that are forced into heartbreaking decisions within this monstrous world. Ness and Cy both deal with trauma. Jaded, gay, and passionate about the horrifying way the media portrays content and romance, Cy and Ness dispel that desire is monstrous, that magical creatures are absolved of abuse as so many authors assume in their worldbuilding. Ness, for one, refuses to be any monster’s victim.

Drowning in parties and vice, Cy is the type of character suffering from loneliness after a particularly harrowing childhood. Everyone runs away after discovering he’s a vampire. Those stereotypical images of teeth and blood-sucking get to them over any sense that he might be an individual in control of his actions. He wants, hopes, to be Ness’s friend. One of the highlights of City of Nightmares is seeing how their friendship develops. It’s the classical reason readers still eat up SFF. The threat of gargantuan monsters in a city is without a doubt a plus, but it’s the friendships that make readers stay.

The story in City of Nightmares is about trust, a kind honest human connection between friends. Amongst all the eldritch horror references, readers will love the bond between Cy and Ness, who pack a quick jab for every response. There’s a similar understanding of trauma between them, one that allows for bonding over their experiences into something more about love over the horror of their past. Society doesn’t value friendship nearly enough. This is the type of friendship that makes a reader grab for the tissues more than a blood-drenched death.

It’s also worth a shout-out that Schaffer is deliberate in all her decisions. It is not an untrue statement to say that fantasy authors often forget that skin color means describing everyone. Black, brown, and white characters are described with the understanding that they exist in this world. Schaeffer points out a character’s skin color over the myth of colorblindness which has historically consumed the fantasy genre. Her world feels fuller, more like the real world, due to this choice.

City of Nightmares is a gleeful mixture of dark fantasy, sharp waistcoats, and humor. The characters go through hell, and they are worth every word. If you’re a fan of Gotham-inspired worlds, The Locked Tomb, or monsters wreaking havoc, City of Nightmares should be on your shopping cart. Any Grimdark parents looking to get their teens into dark fantasy would be remiss to miss this gem.

Rating: 4 Stars

Read City of Nightmares by Rebecca Schaeffer

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Brigid Flanagan

Brigid Flanagan

Brigid spends her life searching the deep, dark world of words and storytelling. She spends her time thinking about folklore, mythology, lyrical sagas, and a mixture of all types of romantic legendary tales. They review @thefantasyinn and have written for media outlets on anything having to do with bookish content and nerdy fandom.