The gaslight and shadows of the underground city of Recoletta hide secrets and lies. When Inspector Liesl Malone investigates the murder of a renowned historian, she finds herself stonewalled by the all-powerful Directorate of Preservation – Recoletta’s top-secret historical research facility.
When a second high-profile murder threatens the very fabric of city society, Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar must tread carefully, lest they fall victim to not only the criminals they seek, but the government which purports to protect them. Knowledge is power, and power must be preserved at all costs…
The Buried Life, Carrie Patel’s debut novel, intrigued me with its synopsis. It reads as a noir crime novel in a fantasy setting and the lovely cover gives off a bit of a steampunky vibe for me. Yet Angry Robot has filed the book under Science Fantasy, which confused me a bit. Still, I’ll never say no to a crime fantasy novel and I cracked open my ARC for The Buried Life looking forward to discovering where exactly the book would fall on the genre scale. Two chapters in and any such considerations where completely forgotten as I became drawn into the narrative.
The subterranean city Recoletta is a fascinating setting, especially with the link between the underground and the surface. The cities different levels and areas were intriguing in what they said about the world and its culture. Recoletta is strongly class-based, yet it’s not a linear system where the highest classes live on the surface and the lowest classes on the lowest level or vice versa. Instead the upper class lives on the first level below the surface, with exits and entrances on both below and above ground, while those living fully above are considered nothing better than peasants and the rest of the classes do seem to move down to the lower levels of the city. Recoletta’s society felt somewhat Victorian, yet its population was not at all WASP-y society. It is a diverse society with people of all ethnicities and it’s treated as something unremarkable. Some of the world building elements were super subtle. One example of this are the white nails sported by the upper classes. These nails aren’t just white, because they do not need to do any physical labour – which underground often means you’ll get grimy real fast – their remarkable length is also a symbol of their owner’s status. The longer your nails, the less able to fend for yourself you are without the risk of them breaking.
Recoletta’s political system is intricate, with what seems to be an almost inherited councillorship, flanked by nobles and a large underclass. There is also a strange government control of knowledge. History, and anything that hints of it, is verboten. Books can only be entertainment, so the poems of Matthew Arnold are allowed – in fact the book’s title is a line from one of his poems – yet Shakespeare’s historical plays are highly illegal. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a regular citizen to know what actually happened to precipitate the earth’s collapse and cause humanity to retreat underground, except for the explanations that government is willing to allow the populace. As such the reader never finds out what really happened and how much of humanity survived. I hope Patel will reveal more of this history in the following books.
The story is told from two points of view, both equally competent women with lots of agency. The latter however, is undermined in Jane’s case by her instant infatuation/attraction to Roman. The first viewpoint we get is that of Liesl Malone, the Municipal Inspector assigned to solve the murder of Dr Cahill. She a wonderful character; a seeming ice princess with a rather nourish vibe about her, she is a textbook example of silent waters running deep. Her no-holds-barred detecting style is fun and I really liked how she interacted with her boss and her new partner Rafe. Patel allows us to see events from both points of view in places where the narrative allows and we don’t get a physical description of Liesl until Jane encounters her and vice-versa. I really liked this approach, as it avoided the self-conscious self descriptions or the usual mirror scene.
Jane is fabulous. A self-employed laundress, she is wonderfully independent and determined to remain so, by providing for herself and being beholden to none for her living. Her close friendship with Freddie, a journalist often covering the society pages, is fun and rather touching. Connected by similar experiences in childhood, they’ve struck up a true friendship and it was refreshing to see it just be friendship, despite them being of the opposite sex. This is made even more clear once Olivia, Jane’s new boarder enters the picture and Jane doesn’t really care that Freddie is infatuated with her as she is worried for his safety. Also tragic childhoods seem a theme here, as in addition to Jane and Freddie, Liesl and Roman also had horrible childhoods.
Roman is a stumbling block for both our heroines. Jane instantly likes him, yet Liesl despises him, for reasons that aren’t ever truly articulated beyond his reputation and his brusque manner in keeping said reputation alive. I liked this tortured mysterious man, especially once his true story emerges. Yet his instant connection to Jane and his protectiveness of her based on only a few meetings bothered me greatly. It seems too deep for the amount of contact and borders on – if not crosses into – insta-love territory.
The narrative contains numerous plot twists and murders, which make for a riveting tale. It’s a tale that only gets more tangled the closer to the end of the book we get, ending with a new status quo that was quite unexpected. Clues to the identity of the killer are spread throughout the story and sometimes clearly placed, yet I found it completely engrossing. At times the narrative became confusing though, because things or people were referenced that I hadn’t encountered before or only mentioned in passing, which would make me have to go back or think really hard, which shook me out of the flow of the story.
After finishing The Buried Life I looked up the “official” definition of science fantasy and the book does fit it quite closely, yet it feels like it is essentially its own thing. I really enjoyed the novel, Patel’s descriptions are strong and evoke Recoletta quite clearly. The narrative builds up to a clear climax and while the murders are solved, the story clearly isn’t over. I can’t wait to return to Recoletta and discover what happens after the upheaval caused by the events in this book. Luckily Cities and Thrones is already slated for release in early February of next year. If you enjoy your SFF a bit off the beaten path or genre mashups in general, then I highly recommend giving Carrie Patel’s The Buried Life a shot.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.