Monday, 28 July 2014

The Buried Life by Carrie Patel, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In The Buried Life (Angry Robot, ebook, 4443ll) Carrie Patel tells the story of two women. Jane Lin is a laundry woman trusted by the height of high society to deal with their dirtiest and daintiest unmentionables. Liesl Malone is a police officer, currently getting used to a new partner with a theatrical background. They are brought together by a series of murders: Malone is shut out of the investigation – at least officially – but won’t let that stop her getting at the truth, while Jane is knocked unconscious after literally stumbling across the body of a Mr Fitzhugh during a late night laundry run. A conspiracy is afoot!

Mystery builds. Death will strike again. People scurry in the dark after curfew. Secret pasts abound. Motivations emerge from the shadows. Orphans discover how their parents died &c. Jane stays involved in all this at the prompting of Malone, who has no other way in to this world, but also on account of her own attraction, despite herself, to surly, sexy Roman Arnault, reputedly a button man for the council. He takes a shine to her, and literally sweeps her off her feet at a dance before saying, “I could show you who I am, what I do, and why they run. But will you like what you find?”

Roman is the kind of melodramatic anti-hero that seems to be all over fantasy at the moment, thanks maybe to the commercial success of Cullen and Grey, though of course they’re part of a long tradition of literary gits, going back through Mr. Darcy and Pamela’s Mr. B. Whether you find that type appealing may affect your enjoyment of the book. Jane has it bad – “Something in her chest fluttered as she watched him unnoticed” – but he didn’t do much for me. By the end he seems rather less significant and interesting than at first, and rather too many mysteries are resolved by him deciding to explain, just because at last he feels like it.

So far you might think this a Victorian novel, and it rather felt like one. However, it is set in the future, hundreds of years after a disaster. Far enough ahead for time to rub away most of the letters on a copper plaque, but close enough that paper books have survived and can still be read. Events take place, for the most part, in the underground city of Recoletta, but these people aren’t mutated – physically or psychologically – by the centuries underground. This isn’t, say The Caves of Steel: when Malone visits the surface she’s awed by the big sky, but not so much that it stops her climbing on the roof of a moving train.

There is nothing like the sense we get in City of Ember that keeping an underground city going might be difficult – though we do hear briefly about “orphans and unfortunates … working twelve-hour shifts on factory machines and assembly lines” – nor is there any shocking reality-shifting revelation upon emergence like the one in The Hero of Downways. Recoletta felt to me like Victorian London with a roof, its most unusual feature a ruling class who grow their nails slightly long because they can. The discoveries on the surface will feel old hat even to people who haven’t seen Logan’s Run or read Kamandi. It’s hard not to groan at the cheesiness of Roman revealing the collected Shakespeare he keeps in a hidden compartment.

For me, a hurdle the book struggled to clear was its initial similarity to City of Stairs, which also begins with the murder of an academic but heads off in more appealingly fantastical directions. The Buried Life doesn’t have any new science fiction ideas to offer, and for the most part it stays stubbornly away from anyone playing an active role in events. Yet for all that it was an enjoyable enough novel. I had a good time reading it and found the characters appealing. I worried about the danger they were in, hoped they would make it out alive, and was sad when some didn’t. I probably wouldn’t read a sequel, and I don’t expect this one to stick with me, but I’d look out for other books from the same author to see if they had a more interesting premise.

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