Book Review: Unreal City by A.R. Meyering
Sarah Wilkes can hardly believe she’s going away to freshman year of college without her twin sister Lea–who was discovered dead from drowning far away from any water. She moves through life in a haze until a cat-like creature shows up on one of her walks through campus. He claims to be a familiar spirit who can bring her to Unreal City, a place where she can make her dreams come true. There’s only one catch. The price of permanent admission is drinking her blood. Unable to resist, Sarah journeys to Unreal City but the dream world soon takes on a sinister tone.
This book piqued my curiosity when it was submitted to me as a possibility for review last year. I knew when I read the summary that a plot such as this could only go either well-rendered and touching or flat and ridiculous. I took a chance, and I’m glad I did. The book offers a look at grief in the young, but wrapped in a fantastical setting that makes encountering such a big topic more palatable.
The fantastical plot at first seems simple. A familiar spirit who reads as sinister comes to Sarah and offers her a bargain. Feed him (preferably with her blood, but her hair will do in the meantime), and he will bring her to a world where she can escape her grief. It seems that he is targeting her for sinister reasons, but slowly over the course of the plot the reader realizes there is more to it than this. This is one of my favorite types of fantasy. One that reads initially as simple but becomes increasingly complex over the course of the book. The fantastical plot slowly takes the reader first deep into Sarah’s grief then into her trying to solve her sister’s death and finally into forgiveness and healing. It perhaps sounds heavy-handed when I put it that way, but the book makes it so it is not at all. The reader realizes initially they are encountering a young person’s grief, but then gets pulled into the fantastical world of Unreal City. Sarah’s grief process then becomes part of that fantasy, so it is more subtle.
The fantasy world is interesting. It takes the basic concept of a familiar spirit (traditionally, a spirit that a witch would allow to suckle from her in exchange for its magical service) and expands upon it. There are a set number of familiars in Unreal city, each of whom is correlated with a certain sector of the city. They each must find a person from our world to feed them and even give them an identity and appearance. That person can control their own sector, and I do mean control. They dictate its appearance and are able to defy all scientific laws. But they can’t control what happens in other people’s sectors, and that’s where Unreal City becomes more complex. It’s a mix of parallel universes and familiar spirits.
The mystery of Lea’s death kept me guessing, and its resolution is eloquent. The only thing holding me back from five stars is that for me, personally, at the time I read this, I did not have the level of experience with the book that is necessary for me to consider a book a five star read. It needs to be something life-changing or that I know I will think of over and over again. I am sure I would have felt differently though if I was either younger when I read it or had recently experienced a close loss. (Interestingly, I read this only a couple of weeks before my father passed. I am certain I would have had a more powerful experience with it if the order had been reversed).
Overall, this is a relatable rendering of grief and loss in the young, particularly in the late teen years, wrapped in a fantastical world that is engaging and keeps the plot from becoming too heavy-handed. Recommended to readers suffering from recent loss or looking for a unique fantastical world. Especially those who are interested in a new adult setting.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review