Dream of Death City is the debut adult novel by author PJ Nwosu. It is an excellent read, and the first instalment in the new Red Kingdom series. Although there are no other full-size novels, Nwosu has two novellas in the same world available for free. I enjoyed Dream of Death City and its blend of dark fantasy with a decent detective fiction plot. I think this would be the perfect novel for fans of Richard Swan’s Justice of Kings because it is set in a more historical, low-magic world. Still, I think anyone who likes darker fantasy detective stories would enjoy their time spent with Dream of Death City.
I must say, I did struggle at the start of reading Dream of Death City. I was picking up the novel at a hectic time and ended up with many unexpected demands for my attention, so I could only read it chapter by chapter a few times a week for at least the first half of the novel. I found it quite frustrating as this was the introduction to a fascinating new world, but there was a fair amount of chunky world-building and longer chapters that I just was not taking in. It does take a while to understand the different factions at play in Dream of Death City and get used to the characters’ dialect. I struggled at the start because of how sporadically I could actually sit and read. If this were not a book I was reviewing for Grimdark Magazine, I would have shelved it and picked it up later when I had the time to enjoy it properly.
As it is, I am happy that I persevered. Nwosu’s world in Dream of Death City is rich, and there is so much potential to explore in religion, law, and magic that I am looking forward to reading the rest of her series. I am a reader who loves extra snippets of detail, so each chapter starting with an epigraph from the ‘Red Reform Laws’ added more information about the history of the Red Kingdom, its caste structure, and the different legal and religious powers in the world. Nwosu also has a map, glossary, and extra character art on her website, which I found interesting. Still, because they were available separately and not in the book’s main body, I could not refer back to them as much as I would like.
Dream of Death City follows two key characters from the legal branch of the Red Kingdom, Polity House. The first and main character is Thora, a Dust Caste slave who works undercover to assist in the investigations of Polity House. The second key character is Diem Lakein, a recently demoted investigator. Thora and Diem are sent to the titular Death City, an icy and superstitious settlement far from the capital and the terrifying oversight of the religious police and the lawmakers of the mainland, to look into the disappearance of the daughter of a wealthy and influential Sun Nobel. But this would not be a thrilling detective novel if it was an easily solved missing person case. There are many unpredictable layers of deception at work in Death City, and after the first few chapters settle in, Nwosu has the reader gripped. Dream of Death City is more than just a fantasy detective story. She has created a richly detailed world that shows the corruption at play in this patriarchal society, the religious zealotry of the Red Priests and their Purge House, and a fascinating magical system and world history about which I am desperate to learn more.
My favourite part of Dream of Death City, though, is not how well written it is or the engaging prose; it is the compelling characterisation of Thora and Diem and the secondary characters too. One of these, soldier Honnan Skyin, even warrants his own novella. The main two characters are firmly in the ‘have-nots’ of this world. It has scarred them in so many ways but also inspired them. I wanted to know as much as possible about them, understand their pasts, and predict their futures. There are so many details woven through about the characters, making them seem so vivid and human rather than come across as a trope or irrelevant throwaways.
This is what will make me stick with Nwosu’s series for the long haul, and I am excited to sink my teeth into the rest of them. However, as a standalone novel, it is still a highly satisfying read. The mystery element is a huge part of the Dream of Death City plot, and it is well executed and concludes satisfactorily. I am left wanting more from the characters, but I do not feel hard done to about how the investigation aspects of the story ended. This dark novel touches on some heavy themes, but it is not unnecessarily graphic. I think the GdM crowd will enjoy it, and I am very grateful to PJ Nwosu for sending over an eARC for me to be able to review it.