South African fantasy has been enjoying a boom lately thanks to the work of authors like Lauren Beukes, Sarah Lotz and Charlie Human, and now Paul Crilley takes us into Durban’s underbelly for a hugely entertaining tale of magic cops, shady monsters and terrifying gods. And really, how can we not love a book in which our hero shouts, “That’s my fucking skin!” to a vampire that’s trying to relieve him of it?
In excellent urban fantasy tradition, Gideon Tau is a brilliant but difficult detective who’s prone to sabotaging himself before the corrupt system can do it for him. A British cop with magical abilities who’s been transferred to Durban’s Delphic Division, it’s his job to discreetly keep tabs on the legions of supernatural beings living in the city. From vampires to angels, from water spirits to Anansi himself, the city is brimming with the paranormal.
One of these creatures is Tau’s spirit guide; a boozy, bitter talking dog with an attitude problem, who can be handy in a fight but hasn’t been much use to his protégé as Gideon tries to track down whoever killed his daughter. When the Delphic Division stumbles across a series of brutal murders that may have an apocalyptic endgame, Gideon might have to choose between revenge and heroism.
A Scottish author living in South Africa, Crilley has great fun blending Durban with a Neil Gaiman-esque world of bustling otherworldly creatures, some of who are just trying to get by, while others want to do very bad things to the oblivious humans they share their city with. Part of the key to a good urban fantasy is to make the setting feel fresh. Crilley may have given himself a leg up on that front by placing his story in Durban, but it goes beyond the city. Elements are familiar, but this feels exciting and different.
The author does an excellent job of establishing a wider world beyond this story, hinting at past events in England and further afield, and there are some fantastic supporting characters who help keep the whole adventure grounded in foul-mouthed, short-tempered reality.
There’s also good balancing work in the book’s protagonist. He’s very effective at his job, but aware of how lucky he is to not have been killed a million times over. He’s tortured, but not at the expense of his wit. He’s snarky and disillusioned, but has a strong moral compass that will be crucial at the story’s climax. And yes, he does still have to carry a wand around years after he should have moved on from it, but he does also have two dragon tattoos that come roaring to life to tear the throats out of his opponents.
However, our personal favourite is Armitage, Tau’s no-bullshit boss who has been relocated from the north of England and is given plenty of reasons to lose her cool throughout the course of the novel, but rarely does.
We’ve been somewhat spoiled for choice in this genre recently, but Poison City is highly recommended for fans of the grounded urban fantasy of C Robert Cargill’s Dreams And Shadows and the mad, gruesome action of Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now. It’s a huge amount of fun.