For some odd reason unknown to me I found Alan Baxter’s works quite late compared to many others. Which I am not mad about at all. There is something rather wonderful about finding an author you really relish, only to discover they have a plethora of other works already ripe for you to enjoy. I read Hidden City in two days straight, hooked in from the very first page.
Hidden City hits the ground running and never lets up the pace. A curious, clever blend of genres, it’s perhaps best described as a gritty urban fantasy, skilfully mixed with a dash of dark horror and a healthy dose of noir. The main character, Steven Hines, is a sarcastic, streetwise, heavy metal-loving private-eye bestowed with magical abilities. Known as a citymage, he can connect emotionally and telepathically with Cleveport, the city he resides in and refers to — although not unkindly — as “a psychopath.” Consequently, when the city contracts a sickness, Hines exhibits symptoms too.
His best friend is Detective Abby Jones, a genuine strong female protagonist here to kick ass and take names without ever spilling a single drop of her drink. It’s refreshing to note that their relationship is purely platonic, and in this way Baxter avoids writing sexual clichés lesser authors often use as a weak crutch. However, as tough and capable as she is, Abby still needs Hines’s help. Six dead, three with special magical abilities, their demise apparently inexplicable, presents Jones with a serious problem. The only way to fix it is for the two to team up and dive deep into the city’s seedy underbelly.
What follows is marvellous, bonkers mayhem of the absolute best possible kind. A virulent magical fungal infestation is sending the city’s inhabitants insane. Presenting itself less like an invasive cordyceps and more like a murderous black mould — or at least that was how I imagined it — the fungus spreads indiscriminately through the general population and destroys each victim from within. Throw in a Russian drug lord and a succession of gnarly overdoses thanks to the aptly named street drug, Misery, and you have a very tense and complex tale.
It’s rare that I like every character in a book, but Hidden City managed to surprise me. On his official Twitter account, Baxter describes himself as a ‘Brain Movie Wizard,’ claiming that he “injects a series of ancient glyphs directly through your eyeballs” whereby your brain hallucinates the pictures. He’s not wrong. His descriptive narrative is knee-deep in endless action and every individual has their own, well-rounded voice and back-story. Each chapter unfolds with a visual explosion — it’s energetic, supernatural dark fiction at its best. Baxter’s concept could have been chaotic, but instead he masters every plot-thread like a circus master spinning plates.
The ending was a bittersweet punch to the gut, and while I’d clocked the direction it was heading in, I still wasn’t fully prepared. “With great power comes great responsibility,” to coin a well-known phrase, and every hero must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to emerge victorious. Baxter ties up all the loose ends perfectly, and while I wanted more — much more — from his motley crew of magicians and misfits, overall I was satisfied by the closing act. Like that final sip of Scotch before the glass runs empty, Hidden City leaves behind a highly enjoyable aftertaste.
Alan Baxter is a multi award-winning author of supernatural thrillers and urban horror, and an international master of kung fu. He runs the Illawarra Kung Fu Academy and writes novels, novellas and short stories full of magic, monsters and, quite often, martial arts. He rides a motorcycle and loves his dogs. You can find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter, Facebook and Instagram: @warrior_scribe