Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror, urban fantasy
Series: Carrion City #1
Length: 12 hours and 59 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Nightfire on October 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
Bestselling authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey have teamed up to deliver a dark new story with magic, monsters, and mayhem, perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill.
Julie Crews is a coked-up, burnt-out thirty-something who packs a lot of magic into her small body. She’s been trying to establish herself in the NYC magic scene, and she’ll work the most gruesome gigs to claw her way to the top.
Julie is desperate for a quick career boost to break the dead-end grind, but her pleas draw the attention of an eldritch god who is hungry for revenge. Her power grab sets off a deadly chain of events that puts her closest friends – and the entire world – directly in the path of annihilation.
The first explosive adventure in the Carrion City Duology, The Dead Take the A Train fuses Khaw’s cosmic horror and Kadrey’s gritty fantasy into a full-throttle thrill ride straight into New York’s magical underbelly.
If someone told me that the Miskatonic River had sent a tributary (or a tentacle) down from Innsmouth to Manhattan, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. At all. The eldritch horrors of this book are VERY eldritch indeed, but it’s the human monsters that really make this story scream.
Besides, as a couple of the book’s characters remark, if the eldritch monster had actually BEEN Cthulhu it would have been much easier to deal with. Instead, Julie Crews and her ‘Scooby gang’ are stuck between the rock of The Mother Who Eats and the hard place of a fake archangel who thinks they have the chops to eat Mother. And certainly plans to scoop up Julie and her friends to pave the way.
But that’s not where we start. Where we start is most definitely at the human dimensions. Julie Crews is a down-at-heels, down-on-her-luck magic worker with plenty of brass, always willing to deliver a kick in the ass, with a knack for surviving stuff that no one should even know about, let alone throw down with.
So we begin with Julie, taking a job she knows she shouldn’t touch with someone else’s bargepole, from her lying, cheating, stealing ex-boyfriend. The one who trashed her and her reputation, stole credit for jobs that she did, and used that credit to slither his way onto and up the corporate ladder at the primo magical legal firm, Thorne & Dirk. (I always wanted it to be ‘Thorne & Dick’ and you probably will too.)
But the job pays real cash money, albeit not enough and under the table, and Julie needs that money to make her rent and pay for her many illicit, illegal and expensive habits – like cheap booze, epic amounts of drugs and high-quality magical equipment.
Her life has already gone more pear-shaped than the average person would expect to survive – and Julie doesn’t. Expect to survive, that is. People who do the kind of work she does and take the kind of damage she regularly takes don’t live to see 40. Or even 35. She’s the last and ONLY survivor of her class from magical training. And Julie’s 30th birthday is coming up fast.
What she doesn’t expect is for her best friend Sarah to show up at her door with one packed bag, a whole bunch of new verbal and physical twitches and dark shadows under her eyes that deserve their own zip code.
What neither Julie nor Sarah ever admit is that they are each other’s ‘one that got away’, or would be if either of them had ever womanned up and actually asked. They’re better together, always have been and always will be, whether they define that together as besties or roommates or the love of each other’s lives.
Something that they’ll have to test ALL the limits of, to hell and back (literally), when Julie’s ex and Sarah’s ex decide to fuck with them in entirely different ways at the exact same time. Putting Julie, Sarah, their friends and ALL of New York City into the crosshairs between the claws of a creature straight out of the Cthulhu Mythos and the many, many mouths of the Mother Who Eats.
Escape Rating B+: First and most importantly, this is your trigger warning that The Dead Take the A Train is a bloody, gory, gruesome reminder that urban fantasy as a genre is the uncanny child of mystery and horror, much like the uncanny babies being born in yesterday’s book, A Season of Monstrous Conceptions.
Meaning that, yes, while there’s a mystery at the heart of this story, there’s a monster or two – or ten – chewing that heart with their fangs as blood drips down their chin. Or chins, however many they just happen to have.
To the point where the horror elements go so far over the top that they come down in a splat of blood and viscera on the other side.
Second, for the first half of the story, both Sarah’s ex-husband Dan and Julie’s ex-boyfriend Tyler were so full of smug, self-congratulatory, evil, white dudebro entitlement that I just couldn’t hack listening to their perspectives. They both exhibited the kind of asshattery that is all over the news and if I wanted to listen to that there are entirely too many real places for it these days.
Which means that I switched from audio to text at that halfway point. I was finding the story compelling – if sometimes gross to the max – but every time the narrator retched out one of their perspectives I wanted to scream. I’ll confess that I gave up too soon, because just as I switched to text the dudebros started getting what they deserved and that was awesome.
While I fully admit that the above may be a ‘me’ thing and not a ‘you’ thing, the relentless drumbeat of just what terrible excuses for human beings Dan and Tyler were nearly threw me out of the story entirely, and that’s absolutely the reason this is a B+ and not any higher. Your reading mileage may vary.
Howsomever, the narrator, Natalie Naudus, is one that I absolutely love, and she does a terrific job of voicing stories that feature last-chance, hard-done-by, bad luck and worse trouble heroines, just like Julie Crews, who would be able to stand, scarred but never broken, right alongside similar characters that Naudus has voiced, like Opal Starling in Starling House, as well as Emiko Soong in Ebony Gate, Zelda in Last Exit, and Vivian Liao in Empress of Forever. (Also Charlie Hall in Holly Black’s Book of Night, but I read that one entirely in text.)
As much as the first half of The Dead Take the A Train drove me around the twist, when the story hits that second half it hits the ground running hard towards a slam bang finish. Along the way we have Julie’s slightly otherworldly ‘Scooby gang’ coming together, with teasing clues to American Gods-type backstories to come, the set up of an almost impossibly compelling magical version of NYC with hints of The City We Became with even more blood and guts and eldritch horrors, and, to cap it off in a blaze of glory, a fulfillment of one of Shakespeare’s most famous sayings (from Henry VI, Part 2 if you’re looking for a hint.)
The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in the projected Carrion City series by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. There’s certainly plenty of carrion to pin a horde of stories on. If this first book is a taste of what’s to come, I can’t wait to see what I’ll be reading next – absolutely with the lights on!