Black City Saint
by Richard A. Knaak
Fantasy | 390 Pages | Published by Pyr in 2016
Despite an extensive back-catalogue of fiction, my introduction to Richard A. Knaak’s work begins with Black City Saint, an urban fantasy set in prohibition era Chicago. Eloquent and addictive, Black City Saint is an exciting foray into alternative history, a fantasy whose setting lends it incredible scope for Knaak’s imagination. In a world where dragons hitch-hike on the souls of saints, and long-dead emperors haunt the temples of God, Knaak has created a landscape blighted by darkness in this fast-paced adventure.
For more than sixteen hundred years, Nick Medea has followed and guarded the Gate that keeps the mortal realm and that of Feirie separate, seeking in vain absolution for the fatal errors he made when he slew the dragon. All that while, he has tried and failed to keep the woman he loves from dying over and over.
Yet in the fifty years since the Night the Dragon Breathed over the city of Chicago, the Gate has not only remained fixed, but open to the trespasses of the Wyld, the darkest of the Feiriefolk. Not only does that mean an evil resurrected from Nick’s own past, but the reincarnation of his lost Cleolinda, a reincarnation destined once more to die.
Nick must turn inward to that which he distrusts the most: the Dragon, the beast he slew when he was still only Saint George. He must turn to the monster residing in him, now a part of him…but ever seeking escape.
The gang war brewing between Prohibition bootleggers may be the least of his concerns. If Nick cannot prevent an old evil from opening the way between realms…then not only might Chicago face a fate worse than the Great Fire, but so will the rest of the mortal realm.
1920’s Chicago; a city of bootleggers and mobsters, where convention is defied, loyalty is bought and sleepless nights are a dime a dozen. But appearances can be deceptive. Behind the veil of guns, liquor and the roaring twenties lies a much darker world: Feirie.
Feirie, however, is not a place of playful sprites and charming tricksters, its sinister inhabitants are twisted to the core, delighting in torture and forever seeking passage into the human realm.
The only thing containing the darkness is the Gate – the Gate which Nick Medea has guarded, alongside his unwilling and unwanted companion, for the past sixteen hundred years. But as tensions flare and evil awakens one thing becomes certain – only a Saint could prevent hell from breaching Chicago’s borders.
In a narrative populated by molls, mobsters, gents and dames, the spirit and atmosphere of 1920’s Chicago is brought to life through architectural description, societal evolution and a protagonist who has seen the changes wrought by time. With hauntings from long dead Roman Emperor Diocletian and the legends of Nick’s own past, Black City Saint has far more depth than its 390 pages would suggest.
Populated by a delightfully disturbing cast, Black City Saint never fails to put protagonist Nick through his paces. While love interest Claryce remains in a state of perpetual demise, and as a character possibly suffers for it, Diocletian’s desperate need for salvation; the unpredictability of the dragon Eye, both a help and a hindrance to Nick; and Fetch the witty shapeshifter are part of a motley group who lend a darkly humorous air to the novel.
Knaak impresses throughout this novel with his lively and engaging writing style, a style which hooks the reader from the opening chapters and retains a relentless pace from start to finish. With rich detail and snapshot imagery of 20th Century life, Black City Saint is a wonderful example of how first person perspective needn’t be at the expense of detail and description.
In the first in what looks to be an incredibly promising new urban fantasy series, Richard A. Knaak has created an instantly compelling protagonist on a backdrop of dark magic and mob violence. Thoroughly deserved of a reputation as a successor of this sub-genre, Black City Saint is an absorbing, inventive and humorous read which already comes high on my list of urban fantasy favourites.