That seems a facile thing to write, but it is important - and, I think, the key to understanding and appreciating the second book from S.L. Grey.*
S.L. Grey's 2011 debut novel was so brilliant that it is hard not to draw comparisons: The Mall was an understandably memorable sort of horrific (in a good way - it is horror, after all) and approached the themes and tropes of horror in a new, deliberately 'meta' sort of way. As well as being a horror novel about capitalism - and being chased by monsters - it was a horror novel about horror, and what happens after the movie ends.
Further muddying the waters, The Ward and The Mall share a lot of superficial structural similarities (say that five times fast) and, as is rapidly revealed, a 'world'. I'll get into the latter in more detail.
But the differences between the two are critical. The Mall was a discussion of consumerism's grotesque underbelly, a world of shoppers and retailers taken to a hideous, Hogarthian extreme. The book enthusiastically tackled a mighty topic, but also one where there's very little right or wrong involved. S.L. Grey deftly avoided value judgements, but instead created the world's slimiest, slipperiest slope (and populated it with damp-breathed shambling monsters). Appropriately, The Mall was also populated with morally gray characters - flawed, weak human beings that were neither perfect nor imperfect, but merely ordinary folks stretched beyond their limits. They'd been fucked over by (real) society, and, during the course of The Mall, were introduced to a society even worse. (Or was it? Dun dun dun!)
And so, on to The Ward, which also features two people falling through the cracks in our world (literally). But this time, the central proposition isn't about consumerism, it is about health. There's a wee bit of societal grandstanding about the horrors of a broken health care system, but The Ward seems to be more about what health means to the individual: confidence vs insecurity, strength vs weakness, beauty vs ugliness. It is an examination of contrasts. Suitably, The Ward also has distinctly-drawn lines and clear behaviours of what constitutes right and wrong.
This distinction even applies to the two main characters. Lisa, a young woman with an acute lack of self-confidence, is an empathetic victim - someone the reader endorses, even while knowing that she's critically insecure. The other protagonist, Farrell, is the flip side of the coin: the reader follows him because he's a charismatic jackass, but is never 'on his side'. They're both reliable narrators in everything that doesn't have to do with their own self-image.
The Mall was people versus a faceless system; The Ward pits people against one another, with the system cheering in the wings. Interestingly enough, this comes despite the 'Downside', the scary under-universe of the series, being fleshed out in more detail. The mysterious, Kafkaesque Wonderland of the first book is now revealed to have rules, personality and even a bit of, well, warmth - or, at the very least, humorous chinks in its hideous armor.
Perhaps the most revealing scene of The Ward, at least as far as developing the world goes, is when one of the human characters accidentally eavesdrops on some of the Downside, uh, people and hears what essentially amounts to office gossip. As a result, the Downside - which was such a truly evil Other in The Mall - evolves from an abstract terror into a physical inevitability. The horror of The Ward comes from other human beings, while the Downside lurks in the background, ready to lend a hand (or tentacle, as the case may be). There are still chases and bladed weapons and nauseating monsters and sickening violence, but the perpetrators are, for the most part, human beings.
Where's this all going? Well, two places:
First, simply taken on its own, The Ward is a stunningly visceral horror novel. Grey doesn't mind using a few of the old tricks, and, indeed, seeds them with great effect, including some stomach-churning body horror and few properly shouty "DON'T GO DOWN THERE!" moments. Two people are caught in a web of death, disfigurement and blind, scuttling terror. They squirm around like panicked flies, desperately willing to do anything to escape... If you like horror in any way, shape or form, read The Ward. It gave me nightmares, which, in this dark corner of genre, is a good thing.
Second, taken as part of a greater S.L. Grey ouevre, there's a twisted sort of rationale that's gradually unveiled over the course of the two books. The Downside may be the most complete reinvention of the concept of hell since the Puritans. It is, in fact, exactly the government of punishment and redemption that would exist if hell were re-fabricated from first principles in our contemporary world. This is not merely a matter of demons with cell phones and a cheery wave at Neil Gaiman. Grey has broken through with a complete reimagining of the theological underpinnings - a system of redemption and punishment that's complete with a dystheistic bureaucracy, accurate (if uncomfortable) reflections of our own social processes, and, most of all, an accounting for free will.**
Suffice it to say that, wherever S.L. Grey goes, I will follow. Taken on its own or as part of a greater whole, The Ward is a terrific piece of nightmarish engineering. And, without a doubt, S.L. Grey's next (final!) Downside volume, The New Girl, is one of the books I'm most excited about for 2013.***
*Authors'. Authorses'. Whatever. For the sake of sanity and subject/verb agreement, I'm going to pretend that S.L. Grey is one person.
**I think that "OMG GTFO", from Stories of the Apocalypse, fits in as well. Although not in the Downside sequence, it examines the theological status quo and argues the case for a new line of infernal thinking. Obviously you should buy a copy and come to your own conclusion.
***In the interests of full disclosure, my mind-grapes have this pictured as SL Grey x John Hughes, but purely extrapolating from the title. One can dream...