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Dead City

by Christian D. Read, Shooting Star Press, 2020

Reviewed by Kyla Lee Ward

Cover of Dead City, by Christian D. ReadIntelligent, erudite and addictively readable, the Lark Case Files have taken us on a wild journey while remaining, for the most part, in one place. From the Black City, where we first met a magician named Lark, to the Devil City where deals are made, to the Ghost City, haunted by loss and guilt. Snake City, caught in the coils and now, the place that is home to us all, in one way or another, dreams its own death. The Sothic temple is no more and the dreadful secret it harboured is now in the hands of the Library. As Sacred Executor of the still formidable society, Lark has charge of its protection and, if possible, destruction. But no one could go through what Lark has gone through and not be damaged in some way. And he knows this, just as he knows the real battle is yet to come.
"The end times have rolled around at last. When it comes, our idea of what the world is... all of that, just gone. We won't like what comes after...

"Shit adds up and Lark's no longer Lark, I'm not feeling like Lark anymore. I made myself up to cope with monsters and fear and now the worst one's come I'm out..."

It's time for facing the truth about the love of his life and what the Library stands for. It's time for friends turned enemies and the third of three meetings. It's time for cherished bonds to be severed, as his faithful friend (and undead servitor) Bettina undergoes her own, fantastic transformation.

Read's vision has never been so sharp and yet so poetic, in the most vital sense of the word. His City, with its chef magicians (well, there were), butchers who dabble in haruspexy, astrologer/ astronomers and subterranean tribals, has never seemed so likely to be the reality you can't quite see. The idea of genius loci, the sacred identity of a place, pervades the entire book. Locations such as the city's dockland and the running tunnels beneath it have history, not just within the narrative but with the reader, and the threat to them is an assault on the order of the universe itself. Dead City boasts a sequence in which Lark gives himself wholly to the hunt for an unearthly quarry, flashing through familiar places to pick up clues his conscious mind may have overlooked, ultimately seeing through the creature's eyes. It is truly superb, an evocation in and of itself.

I have always loved Lark's ingenuity, the way he pulls together the strands of different magical traditions (the research in these books is impeccable) and jerry-riggs something uniquely suited to whatever alleyway he finds himself in, confronting whatever mystical gang. All the while, dropping lines like "It's shark-hunting by way of stabbing yourself ten times, jumping into the water and splashing around in the middle of a Great White breeding ground on sharky date night." But what use is wit in the face of annihilation? It is telling that what ultimately threatens to break him is not demons or the prospect of his own death, but the shortsighted greed and pettiness of humanity ordinaire. There is no easy answer to the parade of horrors on the news or the selfishness of individuals, nor should there be. Because, in many ways, Lark's progress through this series has been about his developing not only wisdom but that rarest gift of a true shaman–compassion for others as himself. As the climax to the Case Files, this pulls out all the stops. In my reviews of the previous books, I have mentioned Read's signature blend of occultism and extreme violence, and this feast of mayhem, pantheism and roof-leaping punch-uppery does not disappoint. No compromise, of character or principle, no loose ends or sudden reveals, just kinetic, ultimately satisfying story-telling. With magic.

And who, in the end, has Lark been talking to all this time?

Smartly turned out, with an evocative cover by Justin Randall, I only wish it were possible to have the entire series in hardback. But the important thing is that the series is complete now, and available to illuminate the curious and seduce the unwary. Go back to the beginning and start, or restart it today.


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