It is Disney’s turn to explore the crime genre with the first book in a new three-part series, City of Villains. Aimed at grade levels 10-12, book one maps out a mature crime-solving mystery with an excellent, large-scale twist. City of Villains is set for release on January 26, 2021, with book two, currently unnamed, scheduled for release in 2022.

What is City of Villains About?

For years, tension has simmered between Monarch City's wealthy elite and their plans to gentrify 'the Scar' – a decaying neighborhood that was once-upon-a-time the epicenter of all things magic. High school senior Mary Elizabeth Heart is a budding intern at the Monarch City police department ready to make a difference. The only problem is, she feels stuck paper pushing behind a desk while watching detectives handle the "real" work fighting crime on the streets.  

But when a girl from Mary Elizabeth's school – and the daughter of one of the city's most powerful businessmen – goes missing, the chief of police puts Mary Elizabeth on the case. She jumps at the opportunity, but what begins as one missing persons' case soon multiplies, leading her down a rabbit hole that she is not sure she signed up for. A girl with horns, a boyfriend with secrets, and what seems to be a sea monster lurking in a poison lake are just some of what Mary Elizabeth encounters. As she continues to seek out answers, Mary Elizabeth finds herself caught in the fight between those who once had magic, and those who will do anything to bring it back.

The Story Takes Disney Villains to a Whole New World, Filled with Teenagers and Technology

While protagonist Mary Elizabeth Heart might give Batman a run for his money (well, maybe not, Bruce Wayne does have a lot of money), book one, in my view, falls short on meaningfully integrating famous Disney Villains as we know them.

City of Villains explores yet another take on some of Disney's most famous villains though the interesting storytelling really lies with its protagonist, Mary Elizabeth. Told from Mary Elizabeth’s perspective, we meet her boyfriend James (who sometimes goes by Captain Crook because of his family’s connections to crime) and the Neverland crew, which includes Smee and Ursula. We are also introduced to Mally Saint and, true to high school gossip, learn about Mally’s falling out with Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. While this book is FULL of Disney name drops, I failed to see a real connection between the Disney Villains as we know them and their proposed origins set out in this book.

Although I am generally not a fan of entirely reimagined Disney Villains i.e. those specifically incorporated in settings so far-fetched from their classic Disney stories (I am too much of a purist for my own good), I did think this character revamp had potential and did enjoy all the familiar names. The story, too, must be applauded for bringing the villains into a present day setting, showcasing the gossipy atmosphere of high school and teens’ addiction to their cell phones. This pitch to today’s teens may very well pay off.

Perhaps book two will further explore the Disney Villains' origins, and perhaps the next chapter of the story will bring us closer to their peak villainous form. While the point of reimagining the villains is indeed to transport familiar villains to new worlds, it should still feel organic. The explanation of how Mally Saint changed her name to Maleficent, for example, was too forced. Readers may find themselves wanting more, which, I suppose, is an ideal set up for books two and three.

The Beginning Will Have Readers Hooked

The blurb and cover (though the cover is not yet final) certainly have a DC-comics type allure that is enough to peak one's initial interest and encourage readers to take home this book. The first line of the book – "the world ended because of me" – coupled with Mary Elizabeth's recollection of her family's traumatic passing will hook readers from the get-go. Young readers, impatient to find their place in the world and make a difference, will likely relate to Mary Elizabeth and her aspirations and motivations. 

The Worldbuilding Aspects Leave Readers Wanting More

The worldbuilding aspects of this book are well developed and inviting. Readers learn about the history of conflict between Monarch City’s different factions: the Magicalists, the Naturalists, the Narrows and the Amagicalists. Legacy, too, are descended from magic and often lock horns with the Narrows, described as “Uptowners with no magic and a chip on their shoulder.” There are also key landmarks which throwback to the aesthetic of Disney films – Wonderland being a prime example, making Disney fans feel particularly ‘in the know’ when it comes to these name (or world) drops. Between events like the Fall of the Wand and the deadly Miracle Lake, the Scar is not without its historical ups and downs, cleverly combining not only Disney names and characters, but Disney worlds, settings and event influences.

The pace of City of Villains makes for light but engrossing reading and I probably would have enjoyed this book as a kid, even younger than the prescribed 10-12 grade level. While Disney Villains appear in this story like you have never seen them before, having not seen them before might be a good thing. Only time – or more specifically, the next books in the series – will tell.

City of Villains is set for release on January 26, 2021.