Published by Pyr on March 1st 2016
Roaring Twenties Chicago. Prohibition gangsters like Al Capone rule the streets. Dirty politicians walk the halls of power. Flappers fill the dance halls. Model- Ts roar along city avenues. Radios blare out Jazz music. Tommie guns bark out street justice. And the gate between the mortal realm and Feirie lies hidden by it all, guarded by its sixteen hundred year old guardian.
This gatekeeper named Nick Medea is a strange, complicated man. On one hand, he lives a simple, solitary life as an exorcist of sorts. Only those with real problems with supernatural creatures able to contact him; his fee to rid these individuals of their specters zero. But his real job is far more serious, more important, more dangerous than hunting ghosts, as he stands alone between the world of Feirie and mankind; his eternal duty to keep the gate closed, because if the magical gateway ever opens it will destroy the modern world, crashing civilization back to the Dark Ages.
But Nick isn’t completely alone. There are a group of near constant companions who aid him along the way.
Most of these are outcast Feiries, trapped on the mortal plane. Fetch is the one who spends the most time with the eternal guardian. This lycanthrope posing as the gatekeeper’s faithful dog, albeit one who talks whenever he has the occasion (in a mixture of archaic Feirie and Twenties slang no less) and is more powerful than anyone would ever guess. Krayavik is the other; a humanoid Feirie who has converted to Christianity, spending his life posing as a priest in a catholic church, where his real duties remain a mystery for quite some time.
Nick Medea also has a ghostly haunt who appears to him whenever he enters upon holy ground. This specter is none other than the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who has been cursed to spend an eternity atoning for some sin or another, something related to Nick Medea’s execution sixteen centuries prior. And while he continually offers advice to and questions our gatekeeper’s actions, his relationship with Nick is strained at best.
The strangest and most powerful of Nick Medea’s cohorts, however, is the spirit of an ancient dragon. Centuries ago, Nick killed this creature, but in the process his and the dragon’s spirits became fused together. Their union a disagreeable one at best; the dragon granting Nick access to many amazing abilities while ever seeking to take control of their shared body and unleash destruction upon the world.
As Black City Saint opens, Nick and Fetch are attending to an ordinary exorcism. An older lady finding that ghosts are haunting her attic, causing her cats to disappear. These spirits turn out to be far worse that the lady, or even Nick Medea, initially suspected, being creatures of Feirie, and to vanquish them, Nick is forced to rely heavily on the dragon’s powers as well as the aid of Fetch.
Quickly, though, matters take a turn for the worst. A new client contacting Nick. This terrified young lady seeking help with her supernatural problem. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but when Nick meets this lady, our gatekeeper is shocked to find she is the reincarnation of his ancient beloved Cleolinda, who is destined (or cursed) to continually be reborn, enter his life, and die again . . . over and over again.
If this wasn’t enough to unnerve even an eternal guardian, Nick discovers that his reborn love is an unknowing pawn of a “Wyld” of Feirie: the darkest of the Feirie folk and the most feared adversaries. This particular one the most powerful and deadliest of them all; someone who should be dead, burned in the dragon’s flames fifty years prior when he almost succeeded in opening the gate. How this Wyld survived and how he remained hidden so long perplexes Nick, but why Oberon has chosen to wait five decades to reveal himself terrifies Nick even more, because when the King of Feirie has that long to plot in secret to unleash hell on earth even Saint George (Who Nick really is) and his dragon know fear!
Now, I’m not an urban fantasy expert like many of my reading friends. Sure, I’ve tried the Dresden Files, The Iron Druid Chronicles, and Justis Fearson to name a few, and I’ve enjoyed them all, but I don’t think four or five reads has turned me into an aficionado of the genre. But what I am is a really critical reader, who demands entertaining stories, and with this in mind, I have to say that I loved Black City Saint.
Why I loved it is really simple: great characters, interesting plot, and an amazing setting.
For me, characters are the most important feature of any book. Without compelling ones, even the greatest stories will not work. And in Black City Saint, Mr. Knaak has gifted readers with a bevy of excellent ones; every character pulling you in, engaging you in their current trials and mesmerizing you with their past travails. They are interesting, complex, and thoroughly developed by Mr. Knaak (though, like all good authors, he holds some things back for future stories.) Nick Medea, obviously, gets the most love; his murky past gradually unveiled in interesting snippets, while his actions speak louder than words in his current situation; but his complex, symbiotic relationship with a dragon was the winning ingredient for me, turning him into an amazing lead. Fetch really was a close second however. Our resident, talking lycanthrope livening up any scene he was in. (Guess I just love wisecracking dog-like creatures. Sorry, Oberon, you have competition now.) Coming in last for me was Nick’s reincarnated love Cleolinda, whose tough, competent personality made her more than a damsel in distress, though this modern Twenties lady really didn’t get the chance to strut her full stuff in this tale.
As for the plot itself, it was a multi-threaded masterpiece, beginning with a simple exorcism and slowly building into a multi-dimensional tour de force of Feirie mayhem. Mr. Knaak’s brilliant use of sub-plots and shadowy mysteries definitely added a compelling undertone to the ongoing action-packed narrative, and his portrayal of the devious Oberon with his cunning and complex plots made every story revelation important and every scene count as you attempt to deduce where this tale was heading.
And that setting. Well, I really can’t emphasize enough how great it was to read about Roaring Twenties Chicago. This era in American history has always interested me; the narrative of a society gripped by monumental societal change peaking my interest (especially since I already know the Great Depression and World War II is right around the corner to dash everyone’s dreams of a new, better future for the world), and while Mr. Knaak doesn’t turn Black City Saint into a history lesson, he crafts the picture of this time so lovingly, so expertly that it all comes to life before your eyes, reminding me very much of a far different novel about the same time period: The Great Gatsby.
Black City Saint is, without a doubt, the best urban fantasy novel which I personally have read. Great characters, interesting plot, and a fully developed setting turning this tale into a real page turner. Probably there were a few missteps along the way from the beginning to the end by Mr. Knaak, but I didn’t notice them, because I was too engaged in Nick Medea and his friends trying to keep Oberon from destroying the world. And that my friends means this was a damn fine story.