Thaiburley is a sprawling city carved into a towering mountain. For everyone but the privileged few that live in the upper rows, Thaiburley is a city of nightmares. Those that live in the City Below do their best to survive gangs and poverty, sometimes scavenging the scraps thrown down from the heights. Street-nicks like Tom, on the other hand, take what they need.
When Tom, who has a knack for stealth, leaves the lower levels to spend a night exploring the City Above, he is shocked to witness arkademic Magnus murdering his protégé. Fleeing from the murderous arkademic, Tom is nearly caught by Tylus, a Kite Guard. Tom escapes, only to fall off one of the highest walls in Thaiburley. Fortunately, Tom is saved from death by a group of netters, but he finds himself lost in the City of Dreams and Nightmares, Ian Whates’ first novel about The City of a Hundred Rows.
Meanwhile, Tylus returns to base, only to be chewed out by his sergeant for failing to catch Tom, who is suspected of murdering the arkademic. Before Tylus can be punished, he is summoned by Magnus, who sends the Kite Guard to arrest Tom. What Tylus doesn’t know is that Magnus has also sent Dewar, a “man-for-all-tasks,” after Tom as well. Who will find this resourceful street-nick first?
Even without the pursuit of Tom that drives Whates’ narrative, City of Dreams and Nightmares would be a joy to read so long as it explored the seedy streets of Thaiburley. However, Whates spoils his readers by keeping an insistent pace while Tom and his acquired guide, Kat, navigate their way between the territories of rival gangs. Although it’s fun to follow Tom and Tylus through the darkest parts of the Thaiburley, our most memorable tour guide is the assassin Dewar.
If fantasy is a genre that is prone to recycling old ingredients to make something new, then Whates has clearly proven himself with City of Dreams and Nightmares. Fantasy veterans will find plenty of familiar tropes, including the young street rat that discovers a secret power. At one point, a demonic pack of hounds chases Tom and Kat through the city. Don’t forget about the parasitic creatures that infect the minds of their hosts by burrowing into the spine. There is also a “Dog Master” that remakes dogs by splicing them with other parts, biological and mechanical. These ideas may feel familiar, but they allow Whates to touch on many of fantasy’s most enjoyable motifs.
Ultimately, Whates’ greatest achievement is the gritty streets of Thaiburley. Tom lives in a dangerous and violent inner city, an impression belied by Whates’ curse words — “This is for Rayul, you crazy brecker.” It’s just plain crummy that Whates has chosen to water down an otherwise mature setting filled with battered prostitutes, gang violence, and genetically altered abominations. Perhaps the PG-13 demographics are more lucrative.
Regardless, City of Dreams and Nightmares is one of those rare books that doesn’t need a blurb on the back cover to motivate the reader to carry on. Just turn to the first page. Whates wastes no time setting up his opening gambit and delivers on his promises with Thaiburley, a mountain city that’s as much fun as snakes and ladders. The towers and turrets of City of Dreams and Nightmares are a maze that hides corrupted leaders, desperate street thieves, and an overworked police force trying to make sense of it all.