Review: “Hidden City,” Alan Baxter

Rating: 5 out of 5

Alan Baxter’s paranormal/urban fantasy novel Hidden City absolutely intrigued me with its worldbuilding. Steven is a citymage, a man with some small “talent” who’s able to commune with Cleveport City, his jealous mistress. His best friend Abby is a cop who doesn’t really believe in magic, but sometimes has to admit that reality can get a little weird around the edges. Right now she has six mysterious bodies with no obvious cause of death, and she thinks they may be “his kind of people.” Gina Baker is a young woman with a small talent in illusions, and she watches her boyfriend Trev die from an overdose of a magical drug that shouldn’t be able to cause overdoses. Jerry Rundle is an entirely ordinary cop who finds himself caught up in a mystery of naked people running around attacking folks, and turning into fibrous masses. There are pools of tiny fungi sending up spores and turning people into these lunatics. He’s doing everything he can, but magic is definitely not his forte. Add in a Russian mob boss irate over the loss of his drug shipment, and things start going to hell quite rapidly!

One of my favorite details of this book is a tiny throw-away thing near the front. Steven and Abby have been friends since they were 8 years old. At one time they tried out having a fling, but it didn’t work out and they mutually went back to being best friends/adopted family. Nowhere is there any hint that Steven feels he has somehow been “friend-zoned.” I am so grateful to Baxter for not including that all-too-common crap, and it makes Steven all the more likable.

The characters in general have a lot of depth to them. Abby is a smartass. Gina puts on a hard exterior, but is intelligent and street-smart. Jerry is starting to think that early retirement might be a good idea, and he happily adopts a dog he finds at one of the crime scenes. There’s a group of technomages who feel they’re better than other mages–more “evolved”–but our rag-tag group of heroes will need their help before long.

There’s a lot going on in here! The fungal infection and the lunatics spreading it, mysterious bodies with no obvious injury or poison in their system, a harmless high that suddenly isn’t harmless any more, and the magic level in the city is climbing fast. Steven and Gina find their abilities growing–this is very handy in places, but it could also be a problem. The biggest questions are how are these things related (if they are), and what’s the source of it all? There’s a ton of action built around answering these questions and more.

My only wish is that there were more books in this universe. The concept of a citymage is fascinating, and I’d like to see more of it.

His was a jealous city. He had always loved her, but had no idea until far too late that she loved him back.

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