The Hollow City by Dan Wells
Review by Ryan Lawler
I’m a big fan of Dan Wells. I loved the John Cleaver series for all its psychological terrorising, and while I enjoyed Partials, I actually missed having Wells play with my mind. So when I heard that Wells was returning to supernatural psychological thrillers with The Hollow City I became very excited and set aside a bunch of time to make this book a priority. And I’m glad that I did – The Hollow City lived up to my expectations, bending my perception of reality to the point where I could never be sure of what was real and what was a hallucination.
The story follows Michael Shipman, a man with a history of mental health issues who was found huddling under a bridge. His delusions have progressed past what is manageable and his psychiatrist has not choice but to upgrade his condition from anxiety to schizophrenia and put him in the care of the local mental hospital. To top it all off, there is a serial killer on the loose and all the victims are connected to Michael in some way, shape or form. Not a good day for Michael. The problem for Michael is that while many of the monsters he sees are just a symptom of his condition, some of the monsters he sees are real, and they have a plan.
This is a pretty cool story, a reasonably simple story, but one that relies on the unreliability of the main character to add in the layers of complexity. The plot is not the driver in this story, sitting itself firmly in backseat while the focus is put on Michael and his struggle to determine what is real and what isn’t. There is a really cool supernatural conspiracy going on in the background, but the problem is that Michael’s struggles are so interesting for so much of the book that I found myself not really caring about the supernatural conspiracy. Sure it was an important component, it provided an electric beginning to the story and there were some important linkages between this conspiracy and Michael’s mental health, but I felt that it lost its presence during the middle of the story and its resolution just felt like a really solid bookend rather than the mind explosion I was expecting. Don’t get me wrong, the ending is fantastic and works on many different levels, but I think that the nature of this story where so many weird realities could have been the true reality meant that I couldn’t reliably figure out any of the big revelations – my initial reaction on the big reveal ended up being “oh cool, now I have a point of reference to start figuring it all out” rather than “What the crap just happened?!” or “I knew it!”.
The characterisation, as it was in the John Cleaver series, is the strongest part of this book. Wells has obviously done a lot of research and he goes to a lot of effort early on to define schizophrenia so he can make the best use of it as part of Michael’s character profile. Michael is angry at being locked up, he is frustrated that noone will believe that he sees faceless men, he is in denial for a long time that he has schizophrenia, and once he accepts that he has schizophrenia he is scared that he will not be able to tell the difference between what monsters are made up and what monsters are real. I really felt for Michael during this book, the way he was treated like a baby despite not having any degredation in his thinking and reasoning, the way he would lash out at visions only to hurt the people trying to help him, and the way that by the end he had no idea whether any of the people he had known throughout his life were real or just figments of his imagination. There are plenty of other characters in this story too, characters that Wells spends a lot of time building up to be very reliable at the start of the book so that later he could start introducing inconsistencies and make Michael question his sanity even further.
The Hollow City is an excellent addition from Wells, a story that is not trying to exploit mental illness as a plot device, but rather tries to educate readers about what schizophrenia really is and how scary it is for people who have to live with it. If you haven’t read anything by Wells before, or if you aren’t a fan of his Young Adult works, then you should definitely give this book a try as I believe it showcases what he does best – coming up with awesome characters and torturing them psychologically.
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