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THE DOWN DAYS by Ilze Hugo: A City under Quarantine

Happy Publication Day!

Seven years ago, the Laughing sickness appeared in Sick Town. Basically abandoned, with no outside governments or organizations appearing to provide possible supplies, cures, or vaccines, it has only a limited connection to the world outside, which seems to be spared the disease. Now quarantined, residents must wear masks and gloves, submit to daily medical checks, and acclimate to a city with a crippled supply chain and an unreliable government where taxis now transport the dead. It’s a city where people have developed new rituals. No one wants to shake hands, so the elbow bump came into fashion, and polite smiles have disappeared since mouths are behind masks.

Tomorrow, a young orphan who is her brother Elliot’s sole caretaker, visits the old museum which has turned into a flea market. While shopping, someone steals him from his stroller. Faith, a former taxi driver, now a “dead collector” and a truthologist in her spare time,  agrees to help Tomorrow.

On the same day, Sans, a black-market hustler, spots his dream woman, and he is so enamored, he implores his employee, Lucky, to make a drop for him. Not only does the woman disappear, Lucky never delivers the payment, and Sans’s business partners demand their due.

In the following week, the two stories intertwine as Faith and Sans independently encouter a Sin-Eater, an underground librarian, a hacker who provides information from outside the city, and the caretaker of a strange convent that fetishizes hair. Meanwhile, the residents of Sick City become increasingly malcontent as rumors and conspiracy theories as well as a rash of hallucinations proliferate.

Faith wonders if she can really help Tomorrow find Elliot—or if Elliot is just a vision—and if the quest will take her too deep into the past to recover while Sans struggles with morality and mortality.

Reading The Down Days by Ilze Hugo during quarantine is certainly strange and uncomfortably realistic. For example, masks as fashion accessories were mentioned, and it was both funny and tragic when a charlatan at the market sold a bleach solution to drink as a cure for the Laughing disease. Not concerned with the outbreak itself, the novel is more interested in what happens in a contained city and the long-term effects on the residents. I thought the world building was fabulous, and I was completely engrossed. The point of view shifts between several characters which seems important in this book partly to present a larger view of the city and partly because no one is completely reliable, and multiple perspectives provides some triangulation. Confident, playful, and insightful, the writing style is fabulous, and I was amazed that the novel is Hugo’s book-length debut.

I do wish, though, there was more to the ending. It felt a little rushed to me, and I’m not sure how certain events described in the epilogue came to be. The resolution for the primary characters, though, was satisfying, and I enjoyed reading the book.

Thank you to NetGalley and Skybound Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

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