When Darren O'Shaughnessy sets his mind on writing adult fiction, the man doesn't hold back. If you thought his two YA horror/fantasy series - the Demonata and Cirque du Freak (written under his pen name Darren Shan) - featured dark, creepy elements, then the City trilogy does them one better. PROCESSION OF THE DEAD, originally titled AYUAMARCA, is the first in this frankly disturbing City trilogy, and it isn't at all new. AYUAMARCA was originally published in the UK back in 1999. Its sequel HELL'S HORIZON was published in 2000. The final book CITY OF SNAKES was never published, although that's about to change, from what I hear. The City trilogy is not at all intended for children. Believe me.
Capac Raimi is a cypher, just what Darren Shan intended. Capac Raimi, young and ambitious and suffering from memory loss, steps off the train and straight into this sinister unnamed megapolis, and it's quickly divulged that Capac means to be a ruthless gangster, with his crooked uncle promising to mentor him into this life of crime. But one treads lightly in the city. There's a pecking order in the underworld. The city is ruled by The Cardinal, this enigmatic, universally deified figure, and The Cardinal is so intimidating and so mythic a man that even the "The" part of his name is capitalized. Capac Raimi, new to town, watchful and learning fast, is shocked when The Cardinal - in very violent fashion - summons him to a personal audience. Capac Raimi is going places. Capac Raimi isn't so sure he wants to go there. The Cardinal is a scary mothereffer.
PROCESSION OF THE DEAD has things going for it, things going against. One deterrent may possibly be the sense of bleakness which occasionally blankets the story. But fans of film noir may fancy this. For me, primarily, the sticking point is that I found it hard to get emotionally invested in the central character. Capac comes off as an impenetrable and soulless anti-hero - although, as it turns out, there may be a reason for that - and whatever likable qualities there were in his persona are eventually stripped away. Capac Raimi's journey is bizarre and peril fraught, and marked with nerve-wracking encounters with The Cardinal. En route he is compelled into committing despicable acts. I can see why Darren O'Shaughnessy wanted his normal reading public to steer clear of this one. His young fans may go into shock reading the nasty, squirmy stuff that unfolds here.
I'm a bit torn. I don't care much for the protagonist, but I relished the imagination which went into the thing, as well as the tone which is in equal parts feverish and surreal, gothic and grotesque (and, as mentioned, bleak). Characters created by Tim Powers and Neil Gaiman would feel at home rubbing elbows with Shan's City dwellers, who are strange and marvelous: the old woman whose face gets younger every year; a feared assassin, oddly long-lived with facial snake tattoos; friends who suddenly vanish, all records and recollection of them vanishing in accord. Shan's world-building finds a place for James Cagney and Singin' In The Rain and Gary Larson's the Far Side, these familiar things sharing space with the macabre, with green fogs and blind Incan priests and puppets with beating hearts. The big, awesome revelation at the end makes sense of it all and, I think, makes up for much of what's negative about the book. It certainly convinced me to try to get ahold of HELL'S HORIZON, of which storyline runs parallel to PROCESSION OF THE DEAD, and CITY OF SNAKES which catches us up with Capac Raimi ten years after. This looks to be a very interesting, very dark, and discomfiting series. Reading PROCESSION OF THE DEAD you may find yourself ill at ease, shifting in your armchair, trying to find that good space in your head. You may not find it. That alone makes this book worth a look.
3.5 out of 5 stars.