Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review - The Buried Life by Carrie Patel

Short review: There is a rash of murders among the upper crust of the underground city of Recoletta, but the powers that be don't seem all that interested in allowing Inspector Malone to solve them.

Murdered historian
A diligent inspector
Then, revolution

Full review: Carrie Patel's debut novel, The Buried Life is a post-apocalyptic underground murder mystery with elements of political intrigue and revolution thrown in for good measure. Set in the subterranean city of Recoletta, the story starts off with the murder of one of the members of the wealthy "whitenail" upper crust of society, and winds its way through twists and turns until it reaches a literally explosive conclusion. With an atmospheric setting, an intriguing mystery, and fairly well-drawn characters, The Buried Life is a fast-paced book with a lot to offer that is only marred by a couple of minor missteps.

The story in the book is itself somewhat interesting in that there are two viewpoint protagonists. The first, as one would expect in a murder mystery, is a police inspector named Liesl Malone who is assigned to investigate the death of Professor Werner Cahill, a historian from the upper crust of Recolettan society. From the start, this is a complicated case because it turns out that in Patel's imagined future society, the study of history is a tightly regulated and controlled activity, with most citizens kept entirely ignorant of the events of the past. Almost all historians work for the powerful and secretive Directorate of Preservation, which jealously guards its secrets, and aren't about to cooperate with a mere police inspector and her rookie partner just because one of their members has been killed.

The other protagonist is Jane Lin, a laundress with a high society clientele who more or less tumbles into the story by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and seeing something that some powerful people think she should not have. In some ways, Jane is a more interesting character than Liesl - while Liesl is a fairly straight-forward headstrong maverick police officer, Jane is a much more subtle character, often unsure of herself and unsure of her position in society. Unfortunately, Jane's portion of the story is mostly carried by her relationships with Fredrick Anders, her newspaper editor neighbor, and a roguish and somewhat mysterious figure named Roman Arnault who seems to be connected to every underhanded act in the city. Because Jane is used as a conduit to bring these characters into the story, and a linchpin to link them all together, her own story sometimes seems to get a short shrift.

One of the elements that makes The Buried Life what it is is the underground city of Recoletta itself, which is almost a character in its own right. Almost omnipresent in the book, the city is a brooding presence in the background of every scene, with dark steam-filled tunnels, gated communities full of imposing mansions, ballrooms filled with lights, and dour government buildings. The atmosphere provided by the city is gritty, and sometimes almost Dickensian in feel, with the sensibilities of the early grimy and often unfair years of the industrial revolution. What makes the city even more interesting is the fact that despite the crowding and the inequality and the grind of the life lived by its denizens, the fact that its residents continue to live underground is purely a result of cultural inertia - fairly deep in the book it is revealed that the surface is not only habitable, it is inhabited. Whatever disaster drove humanity into underground cities for survival apparently happened so long ago that people had been able to return to recolonize the outside world. Although relatively few scenes take place on the surface, the knowledge that it is there makes the city seem even more confining and oppressive.

The murder mystery at the core of the book works well, rolling along nicely from the start, and unfolding into conspiracy laden political intrigue in short order. Liesl's investigation is first hampered by the intransigence of the Directorate of Preservation, but is soon obstructed by the Council, the ruling body of the city. Forced to conduct their inquiries on the sly, Liesl and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar face official and unofficial resistance at every turn but still push forward as the body count rises and the web of conspirators becomes more and more apparent. The only real misstep the book makes is in the resolution of the murder mystery portion of the book where Liesl and Jane both almost simultaneously run into different people prepared to explain the web of political deceit that resulted in the murders. One person explaining the solution would have been a mild let down, but having two different characters do it to two different protagonists simply causes all of the built up tension to deflate into silliness. The book recovers a bit at the end with some dramatic political developments and a hint of what could be coming in future volumes, so all is not lost, but the flawed resolution of the murder mystery still drags the book down a bit.

Overall, The Buried Life is a fine debut novel from an author who shows a lot of promise. There are so many strong elements to this book that the few flaws are glaring, but can be looked past. The murder mystery is generally well-presented (albeit with one significant problem), the setting is interesting, the characters are mostly well-developed, and the underlying political drama is intriguing. Patel handles all of these elements with an ease that many veteran authors would have a hard time matching. The end result of all of this is a tightly-written, fast-paced and very good novel that will scratch both your mystery itch and your post-apocalyptic dystopia itch.

Subsequent book in the series: Cities and Thrones

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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  1. I'm adding this one to my wishlist!

    1. @fredamans: I hope you like it! I'm looking forward to reading the sequel Cities and Thrones.