Just as 'The Legacy of Heorot', which I reviewed this month too, was a seamless merger of science fiction and horror that does everything either genre requires of a book, this is a seamless merger of science fiction and gritty crime novel. I'm very happy that it marks the beginning of a series, with 'Titan's Day' out last month, because Stout is a heck of a writer, especially given that this is his debut novel.
We might think that it starts out pretty much as gritty crime novels tend to, a grisly murder in a hotel sparking not only a serious police investigation but a selection of political headaches because the victim has been playing a key part in a major financial investment in the city from outside. This one will have to be handled very carefully, which means that Carter, our detective protagonist, won't be officially involved because, while he's an honest cop, there's history to warrant keeping his name out of the papers.
Oh, but the corpse is a Squib, a "human-size bipedal frog". When they bleed, it generates pheremones that can intoxicate humans, along with a smell of cinnamon and pastries. Carter's human but his new partner, Ajax, is Mollenkampi, so has a mouth underneath his mouth, which features oversize teeth, and a set of hard plates on top of his skull. Outside, a Therreau funeral procession is passing, its entourage led by giant black horned beetles. So not quite the usual.
We're in Titanshade, a city of immigrants that was built on the oil discovered under its ice sheets, which now fuels a nation. The problem is that that oil is running out. A hundred years ago, the same thing happened with manna, which was what fuelled the magic of the previous era. No more manna meant massive change and no more oil is going to mean massive change too. That's why the Squibs are in Titanshade: planning to build windfarms and so transition into a new age. As you might expect from the murder, someone clearly doesn't want that to happen.
The mystery is a good one, reminiscent in my mind of the movie 'Chinatown' but never plaguaristic. What's best about it is how well it's woven into the fabric of this world, which I should emphasise isn't ours but resembles it to a large degree, at least as far as America in the seventies. It's the disco age here in Titanshade and state of the art technology means pagers and 8 track cassettes. There's no internet, so policework is done with paper files and lots of travel on foot. However, there are people like Divination Officers who can figure out things by playing in the entrails of corpses.
The worldbuilding here is exquisite. We even get a paragraph on the derivation of the city's name without being bored. It's smooth, quick reading but there's a substantial depth. It's rare that I get to enjoy a debut novel with this much immersion into an imagined location, culture and history, especially without it ever becoming dull. I'd call it the greatest success here.
I enjoyed the buddy cop story too. Carter is a great character, if taken from the stock cupboard and enhanced. He's an honest cop in a city where not all of his colleagues follow suit. He's a good cop too but one fallen on hard times, mostly because of fallout from his partner being dirty. So now he solves cases so other detectives can take the credit. That's a tough situation to be in and he knows it, but he's not fighting it much. That grudging acceptance of a bad situation is part of why he doesn't let this case go, even when he's told to, even when he's partnered with a Mollenkampi he doesn't want.
This story is told from Carter's perspective so we don't get as much time with Ajax as I'd have liked, but we get plenty and he's a worthy character with the potential to grow nicely over the next few books, as should their relationship after the crap that they have to deal with here. There are a few characters in support: colleagues, informants and another promising regular, Talena, daughter to Carter's former flame, who now works as an activist in the Estates, a rough part of Titanshade, protecting prostitutes from abusive pimps.
Another thing I liked that should bode well for future novels, and I hope does not backfire on the author, is the fact that we haven't even met all the native species yet. We meet plenty of humans and Mollenkampi, with our initial corpse of a Squib. A few others are mentioned, like Gillmyn, but Stout gives a number to the species sharing this world and I'm looking forward to meeting the rest, because they're well imagined.
I'm sure that reviewers are going to focus on the same things: how fantastic a debut novel this is, how immersive the worldbuilding and how easily this could be turned into a TV show. Fans of Alien Nation or Special Unit 2 will love it, but it's the depth that got me, the implications and ramifications of actions, on a much wider scale than a corpse of the week. That's why 'Chinatown' seemed so overt a comparison and why the vaguely seventies setting was surely chosen. I hope Stout can strike black gold twice in a row and I'm looking forward to a second book in the 'Carter Archives', which is called 'Titan's Day'. ~~ Hal C F Astell