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City of Villains #BookReview

Disney’s Villains meet Gotham in this gritty fairy tale-inspired crime series.

Mary Elizabeth Heart is a high school senior by day, but by night she’s an intern at the Monarch City police department. She watches with envy from behind a desk as detectives come and go, trying to contain the city’s growing crime rate. For years, tension has simmered between the city’s wealthy elite, and their plans to gentrify the decaying neighborhood called the Scar – once upon a time the epicenter of all things magic.

When the daughter of one of the city’s most powerful businessmen goes missing, Mary Elizabeth is thrilled when the Chief actually puts her on the case. But what begins as one missing person’s report soon multiplies, leading her down the rabbit hole of a city in turmoil. There she finds a girl with horns, a boyfriend with secrets, and what seems to be a sea monster lurking in a poison lake. As the mystery circles closer to home, Mary finds herself caught in the fight between those who once had magic, and those who will do anything to bring it back.

This dark and edgy YA series explores the reimagined origins of Maleficent, Ursula, Captain Hook, and other infamous Disney Villains like you’ve never seen before.

City of Villains by Estelle Laure

Title: City of Villains| Series: City of Villains| Author: Estelle Laure | Publisher: Disney Hyperion| Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2021 | Pages: 240 | ISBN13: 978-1368049382 | Genre: Superhero/Fantasy YA| Language: English | Source: ARC via NetGalley | Unstarred Review

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City of Villains Review

The premise of City of Villains has tons of potential, but the work is marred by a problematic execution that prevents it from delivering on the promise of its concept.

As I read this story, I wondered if it was meant to be a graphic novel or include illustrations. Although some of the descriptive elements improve throughout the story, they’re pretty thin at the start of the story. Suppose a story’s set in a contemporary, well-known location. In that case, the description may not be paramount, but this is a work that centers on the Scar, a neighborhood populated by Legacies. Legacies are people who were born with magic or descendants of those who once had magic. Most events in the story occur in the Scar, although the protagonist works in Midcity. These fictitious locales are anchored against real places, such as California, but it’s unclear where they are, and a lot of the details required to have a sense of the setting are missing. Since I received an ARC from the publisher and the book hasn’t been released yet, I can’t present exact quotes, but one illustration of the lack of description occurs when the protagonist describes being in the kind of hallway you might see in an office building. There’s no reference to colors or materials. Whether the walls were white, gray, or beige is unknown, and there’s no reference to the type of flooring. While we don’t always need all of those details, details are lacking in several key locations throughout the work.

I do want to stress that I love the concept. I have no issue with the idea of someone with an investigative gift who’s interning with the police while still in high school. As always, a premise sinks or swims based on how well the author sells it.

However, there are several investigative issues within the book that gave me mixed feelings about this. It feels like the premise is, in part, set up to parallel BLM protests. Since the Legacies lost their magic, they’ve been vulnerable. While magic once made them prosperous, most lost their livelihood. The Scar has only this lingering residue of magic that makes the weather desirable, which is prompting non-Legacies to move into the Scar. There’s conflict between Legacies and non-Legacies, and while the government once took advantage of the people who had magic, they failed to address their needs promptly or help them in a substantive way when they lost their abilities. This has caused a lot of resentment. A school discussion of demonstrations by Legacies following the Death of Magic underscores the conflict between Legacies and non-Legacies (referred to as Narrows in the book). 

It’s also mandatory to report anyone who appears to have magic or use it. While protagonist Mary Elizabeth interns for the police and has her heart set on a career in law enforcement, she doesn’t comply with the regulations and overlooks many issues. Her friends engage in some suspect and criminal activities that she doesn’t disclose. When it seems like some people might be getting magic back, she stays silent.

I’m going to avoid substantive spoilers, which makes it hard to outline some of the problematic parts fully, but there’s enough here to justify some of the doubts I had about the story’s logic. As an underage intern who was still in high school, it seems improbable that she’d be assigned a missing person’s case. I gave the story the benefit of the doubt. Mary Elizabeth is Legacy, which makes it easier for her to work in the Scar, and the bad blood between Legacies and non-Legacies means there aren’t many Legacies in law enforcement. However, she doesn’t show any remarkable abilities that uniquely qualify her for this internship or a career in this field. I can’t even imagine the liability risks of sending a 17-year-old who isn’t fully trained or qualified out to investigate a case. That seems like fair criticism because there are some wealthy people involved. The most incredulous aspect of the story was probably the fact that the rich man with the missing child didn’t bring an attorney in and threaten legal action. Whether your story is set in a world that has the potential for magic or not, one primary step in an investigation is to establish every person’s alibi when you interview them, something that’s often overlooked by all the detectives. I found other procedural gaffes hard to swallow, such as Mary Elizabeth’s partner removing her gun and leaving it outside when they went in to talk to the missing girl’s parent. Since they had cell phones, and this community was proximate to actual real-world locations, it was fair to assume it was a contemporary story. The lack of investigative steps (such as searching for physical evidence, gathering victim DNA for comparison, securing potential crime scenes) made it hard for me to embrace this action. In this world, would a cop go to talk to a victim’s parent and take off their gun and hand it to some guy at the door? Never. That’s the type of procedural violation that would get you fired. 

Plus, despite her determination to be a detective, Mary Elizabeth frequently sets her case aside to address personal matters. I could find that plausible because she is a teenager, and many developments were competing for her attention. The problem is that Mary Elizabeth was partnered with a young investigator who had an opportunity to establish herself in her career and would be ordered back to administrative duties if she failed to make progress in this case. Yet, she was frequently absent from the story while the protagonist did other things. On one day, Mary Elizabeth sleeps half the day away, and her partner never comes to get her or try to wake her up. With her career on the line, I didn’t believe Bella would disregard procedure or let things like that slide. 

There were some temporal inconsistencies within the story, and at first, I wondered if they would be relevant to the outcome, but they weren’t. Now, since this was an arc, those issues may be corrected. ARCs shouldn’t be assessed for typos and formatting issues, and those factors shouldn’t be held against the book when evaluating it. However, when there are substantive issues (such as temporal inconsistencies), they can cause confusion.

The book is filled with tell writing, which makes it feel like it’s written for a younger audience, despite the protagonist’s age (17) and the inclusion of recurring adult characters such as her investigative partner (early 20s), aunt, and the police chief. 

Several threads aren’t resolved. While it’s clear this is labeled as ‘Book 1’ and seems intended to launch a series, it feels underdeveloped in the context of the work presented. And one of the consequences of not establishing settings throughout is that sometimes, it feels like random solutions to situations are pulled out of thin air. 

I know this is a pretty critical review that touches on many issues, but I still wanted to read the story. I liked Mary Elizabeth. I wanted to see this world take shape. And I hope this writer continues to hone their skills and give readers more of the good stuff and fully develop this rich world. And I hope they steer clear of leaning too much into existing superhero/villain stories and give readers a fully realized, original world. 

2.75/5 stars

You can purchase a copy of this book via your normal retailer, but please consider purchasing it from a local indie bookshop instead. It can be found here at Indiebound or at Bookshop. Please note the Bookshop link is an affiliate link and each purchase you make through it helps to support Sci-Fi & Scary and keep the site running.

Child death.
Published inBook ReviewsFantasy Book ReviewsUnstarred Reviews

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