Arkady Martine, Rose House, Subterranean Press, 2023.
Arkady Martine offers us in this excellent scifi novella a locked-room mystery with a potentially homicidal AI and a focus on architecture, all wrapped beneath a stunning cover.
China Lake is a sleepy town in the Mojave desert. Its only claim to fame is that Basil Deniau, the famous architect, built on the edge on the town his masterpiece, Rose House, entirely administered by an avant-garde AI. When he died, his body was left to rest in the house and it was sealed. Except for Selene, Deniau's archivist, who can go back there once a year. One evening, the China Lake precinct receives a phone call from the AI. A corpse is in the house, or rather another corpse.
I went into Rose House first for the architecture. I wasn't disappointed. Martine paints extremely well the power games and the devouring ambition in this field. She also describes beautifully and vividly the unique house, with some tidbits here and there about how to architecturally "read" a building that add a layer to the situation the characters are in.
I also went into Rose House for the locked-room mystery. It's rare that one of those enthuse me these days, but Martine very cleverly didn't make it a battle of wits with the reader. She plays with it by venturing into the haunted house trope with great effect, thanks to the AI. She also makes it an aspect of a tragedy we unfold as we step further into the house and the characters' past.
Because in the end, it's all about the characters. The two officers from the China Lake precinct are endearing characters. Detective Maritza Smith is a persistent and clever woman, who doesn't shy away from risks to solve the mystery. She accepts her limitations and the limitations of her training with equanimity, which gives us a very grounded character we can easily empathise with. Her colleague, Oliver Torres is a more light hearted character, who prefers banal jobs, like stolen water, rather than this mystery involving what he considers a creepy house. His loyalty to his colleague may get him into trouble though.
Selene, Deniau's former pupil and now archivist of his estate, is the most fascinating of the three characters. She has the perfect alibi, but she's also very obviously a broken character, forced to endure solitude in Rose House once a year, among the memories of a man she disliked and with an AI that idolised him.
Rose House is a novella and it was the perfect length for this story. The pace is lively, the plot doesn't need more and is both self-contained and satisfying. Martine gives us some gothic chills... in the middle of the Mojave desert and with an AI, but gothic still. We also have some deliciously (slight) gruesome details that fit perfectly well with the oppressive atmosphere of the house.
Arkady Martine delivers a brilliant novella, perfectly formed, with a story that'll keep you awake past your bedtime.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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