Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical fiction, historical mystery, horror, urban fantasy
Series: Westside #1
Published by Harper Voyager on May 7, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
A young detective who specializes in “tiny mysteries” finds herself at the center of a massive conspiracy in this beguiling historical fantasy set on Manhattan’s Westside—a peculiar and dangerous neighborhood home to strange magic and stranger residents—that blends the vivid atmosphere of Caleb Carr with the imaginative power of Neil Gaiman.
New York is dying, and the one woman who can save it has smaller things on her mind.
It’s 1921, and a thirteen-mile fence running the length of Broadway splits the island of Manhattan, separating the prosperous Eastside from the Westside—an overgrown wasteland whose hostility to modern technology gives it the flavor of old New York. Thousands have disappeared here, and the respectable have fled, leaving behind the killers, thieves, poets, painters, drunks, and those too poor or desperate to leave.
It is a hellish landscape, and Gilda Carr proudly calls it home.
Slightly built, but with a will of iron, Gilda follows in the footsteps of her late father, a police detective turned private eye. Unlike that larger-than-life man, Gilda solves tiny mysteries: the impossible puzzles that keep us awake at night; the small riddles that destroy us; the questions that spoil marriages, ruin friendships, and curdle joy. Those tiny cases distract her from her grief, and the one impossible question she knows she can’t answer: “How did my father die?”
Yet on Gilda’s Westside, tiny mysteries end in blood—even the case of a missing white leather glove. Mrs. Copeland, a well-to-do Eastside housewife, hires Gilda to find it before her irascible merchant husband learns it is gone. When Gilda witnesses Mr. Copeland’s murder at a Westside pier, she finds herself sinking into a mire of bootlegging, smuggling, corruption—and an evil too dark to face.
All she wants is to find one dainty ladies’ glove. She doesn’t want to know why this merchant was on the wrong side of town—or why he was murdered in cold blood. But as she begins to see the connection between his murder, her father’s death, and the darkness plaguing the Westside, she faces the hard truth: she must save her city or die with it.
Introducing a truly remarkable female detective, Westside is a mystery steeped in the supernatural and shot through with gunfights, rotgut whiskey, and sizzling Dixieland jazz. Full of dazzling color, delightful twists, and truly thrilling action, it announces the arrival of a remarkable talent.
Westside is a fantasy that is so dark that it sidles up to the line between fantasy and horror, then powers straight across it just like the ships of the gunrunners and rumrunners navigating the murky straits between Westside and our historical New York City.
Gilda Carr investigates what she calls “tiny mysteries” as the big mysteries in her life are too huge to even contemplate.
Because wrapped inside the big mystery of exactly what happened to her father, the finest investigator ever to walk the Westside, there’s the mystery of the Westside itself. People disappear on the Westside. I don’t mean that in the usual sense, where some people walk away from their lives and are never found, and others are kidnapped or murdered and their bodies are never found.
I mean disappeared in the sense that the Westside just swallows them up. Or rather, something in the shadowed dark on the Westside swallows them up. The numbers of the disappeared were so obviously concentrated in the Westside and so scandalously high that the “city fathers” decided to wall off the Westside for the good of the rest of the city, leaving thousands of remaining inhabitants to rot, or die, or disappear, or kill each other off in the lawless ghetto that the Westside is sure to become. And does.
Attempting to solve the mystery of the Westside cost Gilda’s father his career and probably his life – one way or another. Gilda isn’t willing to put herself in that kind of danger, nor is she willing to open the Pandora’s Box of memories of her father and who he used to be.
But when Gilda receives a tiny case from a woman on the Eastside who needs Gilda to find her lost glove, the glove leads her circuitously around the Westside and back through the past that she’s tried so desperately to bury.
Along the way, she discovers that her parents were not quite the people her childhood memories made them out to be. And that the truth about the Westside is darker, stranger and more dangerous than she could have possibly imagined.
And that it’s up to her to save what she must and fix what she can – before it’s too late.
Escape Rating A: I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this. Because it’s very dark. But Gilda is an extremely compelling character, the setup is amazing, and the quasi-history worldbuilding is just fantastic. Then it falls off the edge of its world and gets even deeper.
The story seems to sit on a very weird corner between urban fantasy, steampunk, horror and historical fiction, with elements of all but not completely in any.
At first it doesn’t seem as if it fits into historical fiction, although it eventually does, and with one hell of a twist. What it reminds me of most is the darker side of steampunk, particularly the Seattle of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, because that’s another alternate history where the supposed “outside” forces of cleanliness and order and good government have locked away a terrible secret along with all of the mostly innocent people who are affected by it.
The scarred and damaged heroine Gilda Carr calls to mind the equally, if not more so, scarred and damaged protagonist Cherry St. Croix of the St. Croix Chronicles by Karina Cooper. And even though Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is set in London (as are the St. Croix Chronicles) the way that his dark, dangerous and magical world exists alongside and underneath the city we know also feels much like Westside.
As much as the horror sends shivers down the spine, it’s the human aspects of this story that stick in the mind. Part of Gilda’s investigation forces her to learn something that is one of the sadder hallmarks of adulthood. She learns that her parents were not perfect, that they were human and flawed and fallible just as she is. And that neither they nor their marriage was anything like her idealized childhood memories of them.
She is also forced by her circumstances to discover exactly what lies at the dark heart of the Westside, and just how much her idolized and idealized father was responsible for. And that she is the person that the Westside has made her, with all its dark faults and all its dubious virtues.
And that she truly can’t go home again. All she can do is go forwards – in whatever she can manage to save of the Westside.