As trilogies go, D B Shan’s ‘City’ has been a long time coming. Procession of the Dead was originally released, as the author’s début novel, under the title Ayuamarca, in 1999. The second book swiftly followed, but the third never saw light of day. Given the author’s success – oddly enough, in children’s literature – the trilogy has been extensively re-edited by the author and re-released to a more receptive and eager public.
The first book introduces us to the charming Capac Raimi, a gangster who’s new in The City. Beginning his career under the tutelage of his uncle Theo, he’s soon noticed and taken under the wing of the mysterious Cardinal – the man who controls the entire metropolis. It emerges that the great man is looking for an heir and training Capac to fill his boots – but there’s a few obstacles to overcome first, with most of them placed in Raimi’s way by the manipulative Cardinal.
The plot moves at breakneck pace throughout Procession of the Dead’s 312 pages; so much so that, at times, it feels that The City is lacking a little on the periphery – some fleshing out of the world would have done wonders, especially given the intriguing nature of the glimpses we’re given into this dystopian world.
Coming across like a merging of the worlds of Sin City and modern-day America, The City itself is seems to be a fascinating place ripe for exploration – full of gangsters, lowlifes and interesting stories – but the action is mostly focussed on Raimi, The Cardinal and the many tests laid down in front of the young upstart. This is something of a double-edged sword: we get to know the clutch of central characters – including The Cardinal’s estranged wife, his deputy and other assorted gangsters – incredibly well thanks to the superb and consistent characterisation, but it can feel like the rest of the world is somewhat detached.
Still, these are just minor faults – the episodes that we do get to experience are stunningly crafted, oozing tension and atmosphere. It does feel like you’re skipping from one scene to the next with little in between, but that isn’t too problematic when each episode is so stunningly realised. The concentration on characterisation can be clearly seen: spending so much time Capac really allows the reader to delve into his rapidly deteriorating psyche, and The Cardinal becomes just as familiar.
Shan also tries to inject some brutality throughout the many episodes that Raimi becomes involved in: his uncle Theo is horrifically murdered, an assassin dispatches some troublesome Irish gangsters and a woman’s head is caved in with a space, and worse. Still, there’s the nagging feeling that Shan’s previous, younger audience is weighing on his mind, and the feeling that he could be more daring with the gore just doesn’t leave. It’s odd, especially in a world that professes to hold nothing back, especially when it comes to gang warfare.
The break-neck ride rolls back into the station with a conclusion that is sure to prove divisive. After hinting at many magical influences throughout the story – and the Incan inspirations, which provide chapter and character names, with Capac Raimi is the month of June – the final emergence of a few ethereal touches seems awkward and a tad forced: after a book that concentrated on more mortal trappings, with the odd reliance on some unusual logic, the big reveal can come as something of a disappointment, coupled with the feeling that it’s just too neat a conclusion.
Despite this, the rest of the book is a stunner – and, apart from retrospectively, the insular concentration on Capac, The Cardinal and their trials and tribulations doesn’t annoy or grate. It’s only later that you wish the conclusion was a bit more frayed and the world a little more fleshed out. Thank god, then, that this stunning debut promises to carry on through two more books – and, according to Shan’s fans, they get better each time. I’ll see you in The City.