"City of Halves" is a 2014 young adult fantasy novel by Lucy Inglis, a British writer who is, according to her biography, a historian of the 18th century. While this book includes some historical elements, it is apparently set at around the time of its writing. This book is what is called urban fantasy, or perhaps young adult paranormal romance, because it is set in a "contemporary" London with normal social problems that also borders on a world with supernatural denizens. And it is a love story about a teenage girl meeting a dark and mysterious stranger.
You might think I am about to skewer this. Nope, I actually liked it, although there are some aspects of it that I thought didn't work.
Lily is a sixteen year old girl in London, who is an elite hacker who helps her father, a human rights lawyer, by investigating cases with her elite hacking skills. Her mother disappeared when she was younger (and if you are up on your YA fiction, you can probably guess that this is plot-important) and her father and her live in genteel poverty. Her father values her independence, and only a few times in the book does her coming home covered in blood and bruises cause a conflict. The book begins with Lily trying to find a man who has been forging documents for enslaved workers. While on a lead, she runs into Regan-- a tall, dark man who demonstrates mysterious powers and references a mysterious background. Lily learns, over her skepticism, that he is one of the Eldritche, the supernatural denizens of London. Regan patrols London, hunting supernatural menaces that threaten to invade the city. These denizens include mermaids, trolls and naga. And the invading monsters include things like a two-headed dog. Regan and Lily actually meet when she is attacked by a dog, and Lily can only be saved by an transfusion of Regan's blood---it seems she has a rare, mysterious blood type, that exactly matches his own blood type, since he is a mixture of human and Eldritche.
Lily and Regan, despite some initial fear and suspicion and skepticism, are quickly thrown into a series of events where they are menaced by force both human and supernatural. There are captures and escapes and fights where they learn to respect each other's skills. At the same time, London is disintegrating, with increasingly powerful supernatural creatures showing up, dragons are flying overhead, and the Thames is flooding. A shadowy government group is tailing both of them. The ending weaves in several plot strings together, and there are a few surprises at the end, including an improbable escape, some last minute tests of loyalty, and a big explosion.
That being said, lets talk about this book, and urban fantasy and young adult paranormal romance in general. As mentioned previously, by this point in the development of "urban fantasy", it has moved away from being horrific and unsettling, to just providing a stock number of characters and situations that can be easily understandable by the reader. Regan is not a vampire, exactly, but he is described in terms that are usually reserved for vampires. He is tall and dark and mysterious and gothic and of course, captivatingly attractive. The book, to me, was more of a "thiller" or espionage book than something that gave me a sense of the eerie. The political and social commentary, as well, was not particularly groundbreaking. Dystopia, surveillance, social media, biotechnology... while I like that the book contained something relevant, by this point, the existence of sinister global conspiracies that critique or modern order is not a statement, it is just, like the hot vampire boyfriend, a starting point we have come to expect.
Which brings us to the love story. And this is important. In case anyone is wondering, our couple, filled with romantic tension and danger, stay chaste throughout the story. They share a kiss. They cuddle. She looks at his "washboard abdomen"...but no lower. Despite being a grim and gritty look at our future, the biological realities of being a teenager are glossed over. This is especially interesting because twice in the book, Lily has to be given a blood transfusion by Regan---so it is acceptable, in our YA literature, for a girl to get some bodily fluids from a man because she has just been attacked by a two headed dog/shot point blank, but not because of sex. I was actually thinking of something before I started this book, and this book certainly is an example: heroines in young adult paranormal fiction never or rarely menstruate. Which is weird because blood is a motif in this book. Lily has a rare blood type, and needs to bank her blood, and she gets transfusions from Regan, and she is often described as bleeding, being cut, being bruised, and in general having a rough, exsanguiness time. But no periods. We have to draw the line somewhere. Which brings up a paradox: even in a grim and gritty supernatural spy thriller--- Lily has a more sanitized life than Margaret Simon. At the same time as our YA fiction got so so edgy, it totally closed the door on normal parts of being a teenager.
Which also reflects back to the nature of how horror has become "urban fantasy". This book can be scary, it can be tense, but like most urban fantasy, it can't create an atmosphere of the eerie, because it can't create an atmosphere of the real. For this book to scare me, it would have to invest more time in feeling real---of describing Lily as a real person in lots of little ways, and not as an elite hacker teaming up with supernatural creatures for high stakes spying missions across London. Little hints of real life would have given a much more scary atmosphere to this book.
I like this book. Half of this essay has been me picking out flaws in urban fantasy and YA fantasy that are not specific to this book, but trends in the genre. By itself, it was interesting, I found the romance believable, and the descriptions of London's supernatural environment were engaging and relatively novel. It is just the book was under the limitations of the factors that have sanitized both horror, and young adult stories, into being predictable even when they are wild.