"Dreaming means waking up as your worst fear," you say?
Let's also add in some "eh, might die, but I can't afford to be anywhere else" vibes and I'm sold. This was such a fascinating concept and a really fun read.
Man, I really wish I'd gotten around to my advanced reading copy sooner so that I could have been an AGGRESSIVE promoter of it during its release week. I have fallen down on my duties!!
This book was such a good ride, y'all, and I am definitely paying attention now.
Ness Near lives in the City of Nightmares. No wait, Gotham. No wait, it's not either of those places—it's Newham. Either way, the vibes are the same: this is not the kind of city you'd like to live in.
Rampant crime and violent death. In-your-face political corruption. Unbelievable living conditions. And none of those things are the worst selling point--it's the Nightmares that you have to worry about.
What if every time you dreamed, you rolled the dice on the chance that you woke up as your worst Nightmare?
Ness is very aware of the tragedy and horror of that gamble. When she was younger, one night her older sister, Ruby, went to sleep and woke up as a giant, man-eating spider. Ruby was gone, and the spider in her place killed their father and others in town.
Let's just say that Ness never quite got over that.
Now a young adult living at the Friends of the Restless Soul compound—a charity (cough cough, cult) organization that provides "pay as you can afford" therapies to Nightmare trauma survivors—Ness is eeking away a frightened and barely there existence in the country's most dangerous city and surrounded on a daily basis by her worst fear: Nightmares.
And then, to make matters worse, Ness ends up embroiled in an embroiled assassination attempt beyond her wildest imaginings and finds the little ground she's scraped and bled to assemble ripped out from under her.
Oh, and then there's the Nightmare that ends up in (and on) the same boat she's in, who just might turn out to be her only friend.
Yep. Things are about to get...interesting.
(And that's saying something for the city of Newham, where the current Mayor keeps a Nightmared-pterodactyl on a leash to eat her political enemies.)
Okay, so if you've made it this far into the review and are somehow NOT already interested, let me just say that City of Nightmares was such a fun and self-aware ride.
As a reader who burned herself out on traditional young adult books, it's getting rarer and rarer these days for me to find a hook that invites me into a story. I'd like something new—that I haven't read before—and I'd like it to be done well and with the right amount of believable character traits. I'm ruthless with my reading tastes when I want to be, and for the past year the genre under the chopping block has been young adult fantasy.
But not this one. This one, I devoured.
Ness is the right kind of character for this story. In a world where fear itself is the commodity of choice, Ness is true scaredy cat. She's a self-professed coward, one who can barely handle the benign Nightmares that walk the streets harmlessly, not to mention the actually dangerous ones. Ness jumps from safe zone to safe zone under the constant internalized threat of Death by Nightmare. She's a right mess, alright?
And that really worked for me. While we all like to pretend we're relatable to the hero of a fantasy story, we're really...not. How many of us would sign up for that dangerous quest, or that big bad boss showdown, or that heist against the odds? I'm self-aware enough to admit that given the actual facts, I'd be like Ness. "How can I survive this experience and avoid personal damage to the best of my abilities, please?" Sign me up for that self-preservation track. Yup.
So I thought that thread of character realism in this caricaturized, fictional version of our real world's dark side was awesome. It lent a dose of grounding to the sensational world building. And it made for a very good reading experience.
Did the pacing lag a bit? Yeah. Did we also kind of rush things there at the end of this first book? Maybe. But honestly, I had such a good time that I don't really care about that.
Book two, I'm waiting for you!
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A girl, a boy, and realms beyond death. Doors to other places and whispering demons in the corner of your eye. This was a very interesting read.
Delaney is a girl with one foot in the world of the living and one foot in the world of the dead. Having gone Deaf when she was a young child experiencing a deadly illness and a near/actual-death experience, Lane's life has gone through some unexpected paths.
Her latest unexpected path involves her mysterious enrollment in Godbole University. Lane's been inducted into a secretive program with unknown foundations and a distinctly macabre flair. What do the students learn? What exactly qualifies them for this invite-only degree?
And what the heck is up with her hot and mysterious teaching assistant, Colton Price?
(Yes, this is essentially a young adult romance told with a distinctly dark academia/speculative flair. You've been warned!)
With a creeping sense that something is afoot, Lane finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into a web of lies, alternate realms, and a worrying number of missing and dead students. Has Lane unexpectedly dropped herself in the middle of a dangerous game?
I don't want to do this novel any disservice by talking about the magical elements within this book. Part of the enjoyment comes from allowing the book to reveal its steps in due course to Lane (and the reader) as they unfold.
The Whispering Dark had a very cool premise. Lane's Deafness leading to a unique magical relationship with—you might have guessed—a whispering entity in the darkness was very unique and I enjoyed seeing that development unfold. This novel's unique blend of horror, portal fantasy, Romeo + Juliet vibes, and deathly gothic saturation was a heady combination to read.
And yet... Agh, I am conflicted.
Sometimes, there's a book that is overly mysterious and the ratio between the unknown and the revealed skews itself between "the reader has no clue what the F is going on" and "the reader knows too much about what is going on" in a satisfying way. And then other times... that ratio veers to far in one direction and loses its edge. I fear The Whispering Dark veered too far for me.
This is a novel with a lot of mystery: What is going on with this academic program? Why are students disappearing and turning up dead? What is Colton Price's backstory, and why is is mysterious childhood experience with death linked so intrinsically with Lane? How does this magic system of disappearing into portals/realms work?
And so on. There are a TON of questions, and The Whispering Dark prefers to leave you in the dark (pun intended) for a frustratingly long time instead of answering them.
I wanted to have more of a concrete sense of understanding around this magic system and its mechanics: I didn't get it. I wanted to know more about the lore and the background for these other realms and/or why this entity cared about our realm and our characters so much: I didn't get that, either.
And it's not just the magical elements of this novel that frustrated me... It was the characters and their antics too. We had some side characters who seemed under-utilized and under-described, and yet annoying present despite their two-dimensional aspects. We also had a very, VERY heady relationship between Lane and Colton that felt almost Twilight-esque in its gothic attraction/insta-love elements, and yet for 90% of the book I spent my time frustratedly waiting for the "reveal" to happen for Lane as we, the reader, know why their pairing is so significant and yet Lane is keep in the metaphorical dark to the point of ruining the emotional payoff of the reveal. (I know I sound heated about this last one, and I am. This was so frustrating to slog through and I don't think this book would have lost its edge if we'd allowed for their pairing to be more honest from the start.)
However, despite my issues with this novel's lack of explanations, frustrating lack of coherency, and over-the-top gothic romance vibes, I did still enjoy this read. I think I might be in the minority for the elements I mention above, so if you're interested in The Whispering Dark's premise I do recommend it.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.