City of Nightmares, by Rebecca Schaeffer

From Goodreads, because this is hands down one of the most intriguing descriptions for a book that I’ve ever laid eyes on: Ever since her sister became a man-eating spider and slaughtered her way through town, nineteen-year-old Ness has been terrified—terrified of some other Nightmare murdering her, and terrified of ending up like her sister. Because in Newham, the city that never sleeps, dreaming means waking up as your worst fear.

Whether that means becoming a Nightmare that’s monstrous only in appearance, to transforming into a twisted, unrecognizable creature that terrorizes the city, no one is safe. Ness will do anything to avoid becoming another victim, even if that means lying low among the Friends of the Restful Soul, a questionable organization that may or may not be a cult.

But being a member of maybe-cult has a price. In order to prove herself, Ness cons her way into what’s supposed to be a simple job for the organization—only for it to blow up in her face. Literally. Tangled up in the aftermath of an explosive assassination, now Ness and the only other survivor—a Nightmare boy who Ness suspects is planning to eat her—must find their way back to Newham and uncover the sinister truth behind the attack, even as the horrors of her past loom ominously near.

Normally, I wouldn’t include a book description that’s that long, but this is worth it. And it does a really good job of showing the kind of writing in City of Nightmares. I added this book to my list after reading just the first half of the first sentence, and I wasn’t disappointed. Sure, the first 50 pages or so were a little slow as the world and characters got built and backstoried. Though honestly, I was reading those first 50 pages in snatches between doctor’s appointments and such, so the “slowness” might have been entirely coincidental/mindset. I kept pushing through because I expected it would be worth it, and once I had time to really sit and read, I finished the book in under two days.

There are two things I want to say about this book. The first is that I’m incredibly happy that such a book exists. Some years ago, I had an idea for a novel about a society where people are given medication to cause them not to dream, because somehow (I hadn’t figured out how) a hole had opened up between the dream world and ours, and dreams started coming through to our world in all their various forms. There was more to it that I had planned out, but 1) this was past when I’d given up fiction-writing, so I never did much with it, and 2) I realized quickly that this wasn’t the kind of book that I’d write well. So it was an idea that went to the wayside, an idea I loved and wished to exist in the real world. Now it does, and Schaeffer created it in so much gloried detail that it’s everything I could have wanted and more!!

The second thing is that this book is more than just its plot. Yeah, the plot is incredible. It keeps you on your toes, and there are moments less than 50 pages from the end that had me saying “Oh fuck” aloud. However, this is the best kind of book, where the thematic elements are just as important as the story. This is a book about fear, empowerment, agency, and choice. It’s about friendship and non-romantic intimacy and trust. It’s about the worst elements of human nature, and the way society progresses when those toxic elements are given form, whether that form is literal (a person becoming a nightmare creature) or less tangible (like in media or politics).

Honestly, while I enjoyed reading the book, it was only after I finished and I began thinking back through it that I realized just how much Schaeffer layered into these pages. I’ve had experiences both through blogging and through book clubs where a novel has been good – or even just okay – on reading, but through analysis, writing, and/or discussion, that initial impression has vastly improved. This is one of those times. I had no idea that I was getting more than a fascinating fun story when I went into City of Nightmares, and now I can’t wait to approach the forthcoming sequel** with more focus.

PS: Noteworthy fun fact – this is my 11th “City of __” book read since I began blogging 15 years ago. Some of those are repeat authors, so Schaeffer makes the 8th author of a “City of __” book that I’ve read in that time. “City of __” is therefore the most common novel title template that I’ve recorded on my blog. Huzzah!

**Apparently this series is a duology. I thought City of Nightmares was standalone when I started, but by the end, I realized it must be part of a series, and GR lists book two as the conclusion of the sequence.


About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
This entry was posted in 2023, Prose, Young Adult and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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