Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Hollow City by Dan Wells

Dan Wells is making a career out of the non-neurotypical -- and I'm not insulting SFF readers! (For once!) His first trilogy, beginning with I Am Not a Serial Killer (see my review of the three of them) followed a possibly sociopathic young man as he discovered that his impulses to murder and torture could possibly be turned to useful ends.

John Wayne Cleaver had to struggle with his own impulses, and saw unbelievable things, but he could always trust in his own perceptions, no matter what unlikely things he saw. Unfortunately, Michael Shipman -- the first-person narrator of Wells's new novel, The Hollow City -- has it even worse than John did: he's a paranoid schizophrenic, subject to hallucinations and complex fantasies of persecution. And, when the novel opens, he's just woken in a psychiatric hospital after some time spent off his medication -- and possibly out of touch with reality.

The Hollow City is entirely from Shipman's point of view, so Wells has a tricky balancing art: to depict what Shipman sees and feels -- particular in the early pages of Hollow City, when he's been unmedicated for a while and has been grabbed by people he doesn't know -- to keep us identifying with Shipman, and to subtly clue us in about the distinction between what Shipman sees and what is really there. Hollow City was published by Tor, a noted SF/Fantasy imprint, and is by Wells, whose previous books have featured supernatural creatures -- so the reader's genre instincts are to believe Shipman, and to assume that, even if he is a paranoid schizophrenic, that doesn't mean that horrible unlikely creatures aren't also after him.

Hollow City is not a long novel, but it feels longer than it is; it doesn't have a lot of external action, and stays tightly focused on Shipman's is-it-real-or-am-I-crazy concerns. Wells does have Shipman talk about how he hallucinates more before the medication kicks in, but he doesn't directly narrate that very much; not only are we inside Michael Shipman's mind the entire time, but we often get his summaries of what's been going on and how he's relating to the world.

Hollow City is a mostly hermetic novel, stuck in Shipman's head as he's stuck in this psychiatric ward, concerned with the possibly-conflicting goals of getting Shipman "well" and solving the mystery of the truth behind his hallucinations. There are elements of the ending that don't work as well as they could -- the truth behind Shipman's delusions is weird and underwhelming, though Wells gets bonus points for it being completely new and unexpected -- but it would be difficult to get into them without giving away the whole point of the novel: a reader must go into it not being sure what Shipman is hallucinating and what is real. Even with that said, Hollow City is well worth reading: Wells shows again that he has a knack for unreliable narrators and worlds that look just like the real one until the big twist.

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