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Book Review: City of the Dead by Rosemary Jones

# Genre: Shared Worlds, Forgotten Realms, Sword and Sorcery
# Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages
# Publisher: Wizards of the Coast (June 2, 2009)
# ISBN-10: 078695129X
# ISBN-13: 978-0786951291
# Author Blog: Rosemary Jones

Rosemary Jones first appeared in the Forgotten Realms universe with her dungeon-diving novel (plus a little white dog) The Crypt of the Moaning Diamond. In her newest novel, City of the Dead, Jones sets her sights on Waterdeep, foremost city of the realms, as part of the Ed Greenwood Presents Waterdeep series from Wizards of the Coast.

The City of the Dead has been the graveyard of the noble and elite of Waterdeep since time immemorial. The Carver family has always been the artisans which crafted the monuments and gardens which populate the City of the Dead. Sophraea is the youngest daughter of the current clan of Carvers, a large family of overprotective males of the slight, pretty, and young girl. But Sophraea is just as strong in will, if not in body, as any of her brother or cousins. When strange stirrings begin to occur at the private, unwarded graveyard gate of the Carver family, it is up to Sophraea to recruit a poorly educated wizard named Gustin to help her discover just why the normally peaceful dead of the City are so ill at ease.

Jones’s story of the undead rising from their graves has some subtle twists to it that make it different from the traditional zombie, vampire, or ghost tale. For one, in post-Spellplague Waterdeep, the nightly meanderings of various wraiths and spirits are a common place occurrence, especially in the City of Dead. For the dead to prowl the night is par for the course in Sophraea’s world. Jones does and excellent job of having her characters see something mythical as truly ordinary. This only enhances the effect of Sophraea’s worry over the dead attempting her family’s private gate.

Another significant twist is the fact that although the walking dead are certainly a hindrance, throughout much of the novel, it is not entirely clear if the dead are the good or bad guys. Jones sets up the novel to allow for a multiple possibility of villains, blurring the lines between hero and villain. Although Sophraea and her wizardly companion are the obvious protagonists and heroes of the story, just as they are confused as to whether the walking dead are all bad, so too is the reader. By doing this, Jones keeps several plot threads gong at once, all of which culminate in an epic climax.

The basic motivations of the story may be considered simple by some readers. The walking dead follow a motivation most common to their character (i.e. revenge), and Sophraea and Gustin are of course trying to keep the dead from leaving the graveyard. Too, the instigator of these events will be rather clear from the outset, and Jones could have done more to obscure the root of the Carver family’s trouble.

The Carver family is an interesting aspect of the story. Unlike many sword and sorcery tales, City of the Dead does not have a lone or small group of heroes that is completely unconnected to the world around them. Jones’ heroine is part of a large family, a family that she loves and admires. She seeks the best for their community, perhaps a bit too individualistically, but always with the goal of doing what is best for her family and her community. Sophraea is not the disobedient or disrespectful daughter often found in such tales, nor is she the orphan child who grows to prominence in rags-to-riches style. Sophraea’s is a communal being finding meaning and purpose as part of that, rather than in seeking her own desires only. Sure, the story paints her as independent and capable, but in no way is she ever alone, and the final culmination of the narrative would only have been possible through the assistance of her family. This family-oriented characterization of Sophraea makes City of the Dead unique among its contemporaries, which are so often dependent on “lone wolf” heroes or a small band of companions that are rooted in each other, but not the community at large.

Rosemary Jones is rapidly becoming a writer to seek out. Although the story is simple in its plot construction, there are subtleties of characterization that make the tale unique. Her tale of an ordinary young woman seeking her family’s best interests is exciting and out of the ordinary and I highly recommend City of the Dead to both long-time Forgotten Realms fans and newcomers alike.