Chris Brookmyre, Places in the Darkness, Orbit, 2017.
I had enjoyed a lot Bedlam and even more Pandemonium, Chris Brookmyre's two fantasy novels. So it was with some eagerness that I was waiting for Places in the Darkness, his first scifi novel. It didn't disappoint, it was even much better than what I expected based on his previous novels.
Alice is a 30 something woman, arriving to Ciudad del Cielo, a space station built to be the building site of Earth's first generation ship. But Alice isn't anyone. An adopted child, she was raised by a wealthy and influential family and is now ready to take an important post in CdC for the multi-governmental agency which is half of the governing body of the space station. But she soon learns that corruption is rife on CdC and, when a crime is committed, she asks to team up with Nikki Freeman, a 40 something cop who ignores her identity and who is probably the most corrupt of them all.
What I had particularly enjoyed in Pandemonium, one of Brookmyre's fantasy novel, was how incredibly well his characters were drawn. In Places in the Darkness, he improves his characterisation even more. Neither Alice nor Nikki are particularly endearing characters at first: one is a judgemental woman coming from a privileged background and the other is corrupt, emotionally closed and even sometimes violent. But you come to like, even love, them. And what I find particularly remarkable is how Brookmyre didn't shy from writing at first unappealing female characters while still keeping them complex, believable and interesting, just like De Bodard did in On a Red Station Drifting.
Alice and Nikki are, of course, the stars of the novel. But Ciudad del Cielo is full of the gallery of characters you'd expect in such a place: officials clinging to their powers, marginalised people, thieves and smugglers, scientists, corrupt men and women in many places on the hierarchical ladder, people living on the fringes of law. The space station truly feels alive and genuine thanks to all those secondary characters.
The plot itself is solid and moves at a sustained pace. From time to time, you feel like shouting to the characters that "For goodness sake! Isn't it obvious?", but they're more or less running for their lives or misled by a web of lies, and they may be a bit too busy for your cool and rational thinking. The plot may not be high concept, but Brookmyre avoids with talent any cliché, and even plays with the readers' expectations of those clichés.
It is a highly competently told story, full of action and twists, but which manages to also leave room for great character development.
Furthermore, Places in the Darkness deals elegantly with contemporary issues such as the issues of the capitalist system, particularly for those who are on the margins of society, and the morality extremists (a character off handedly remarks that in another time, Such Character would be a religious fundamentalist but since religion has more or less faded... ), while still echoing universal issues such as "the greater good" in the name of which many atrocities are committed.
Places in the Darkness is a highly immersive story, with excellent characters and a great setting that truly come alive. It is one of those modern scifi novels that are still very much in the continuity of what came before and I wouldn't be surprised to see it on many awards lists in 2018.
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