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Nathan’s review of City of Spores by Austin Shirey 

THE TL;DR: Austin Shirey brings readers to the fungal infested city of Madripol in this noir-whodunnit novella. Johanna Kulbrick is a detective who gets way in over her head when she is asked to find a rich man’s missing wife, and murder, political conspiracies, and more come to follow. This is a fast-paced urban fantasy whodunnit that feels so alien just because how familiar Madripol feels. This book is perfect for fans looking for noir vibes, sentient mushrooms, a touch of body horror, and an enticing mystery.

The Full Review: 

Between cuffing season and hot girl summer there is…fungal noir spring?

The mushroom spores and gritty detective vibes are in the air in early 2024, between City of Spores and Mushroom Blues by Adrian Gibson. It’s not a genre I ever knew would come into existence, but it is a genre that I am absolutely here for.

City of Spores is classically noir in its tone and setting. Johanna Kulbrick is a socially disgraced private investigator who gets pulled into the case of her career when a wealthy man asks her to find his missing wife. Underground crime, political conspiracies, murders, and more find Johanna as she gets deeper and deeper into the case.

And of course, lots of mushrooms that have overrun the city (but don’t worry, they aren’t harmful to humans….or are they?).

City of Spores is kind of like if you smashed together HBO’s version of Perry Mason with the fungal horror of What Feasts at Night along with the other-worldliness of the fantasy/noir mashup of Even Though I Knew the End. Whether you are in it for the noir, the fungal horror, or the mystery, this short novella packs SO MUCH in such a little space that there isn’t any reason for you to delay picking it up.

The noir vibes are front and center in this novella. I couldn’t get an exact sense of how modern-or-not the city of Madripol is suppossed to be, but regardless this book will make you feel like you stepped into a smoky 1930s/1940s black and white movie. The crusty PI, the just-trying-to-get-by workers, and political crimes will instantly scratch that noir itch. I was hooked from page one, and the book doesn’t let up until its last gasp.

Which is perhaps my only real critique of the book – the ending feels kind of rushed. The novella is the ideal format for this story, but I wish that Shirey gave a bit more room for the ending to breathe. The novella has an absolutely relentless pace that had be glued to the pages as Shirey pulled reveal after reveal (each one of them feeling earned), and I just wanted a bit of falling action to let out “the breath that I didn’t know I was holding”. I think what this means more than anything is that I want more stuff from this world – and I don’t think there is a bigger compliment that I can give to a book than I wanted there to be more of it!

So much of my love of this book (and why I would love to return to this universe in the future!) is the subtle worldbuilding that Shirey sprinkles throughout the book. As familiar as Madripol feels, it is also entirely alien because of the fungal prescence. Mushrooms grow everywhere, sometimes even consuming and replacing everyday objects that explode in people’s hands. I don’t want to say much more here because so much of the fun of this novella is learning more about the origins of the mushrooms, but they are pretty freaking cool and there are definitely some fun body horror elements sprinkled throughout (but don’t worry if you are squemish, Shirey wisely shows a lot of restraint in these moments about how much he explicitly describes on the page).

The main character, Johanna, especially injects the novella with a dry sense of humor and those noir vibes. She perfectly maps onto the morally noble-but-also-kinda-gray archetype, while also feeling like she is her own three-dimensional person as well. While I will take any future books about this world, I also hope there is some way we can bring her back as well!

I more than enjoyed my time with City of Spores and cannot wait to see what else Shirey has in store for readers with any future releases. He is now 100% an author that I have on my radar.

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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