(2017) Chris Brookmyre, Orbit, £18.99, hrdbk, x+ 405pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50624-1
Having chaired a panel with Chris Brookmyre at Fantasycon 2017, I was intrigued to read his latest novel, Places in Darkness, a Science Fiction murder mystery set on Ciudad de Cielo (CdC), the ‘city in the sky’. A space station is home for construction workers who were ‘building the colony ship that will one day take humanity to the stars’.
Brookmyre has been writing novels for a long time, twenty-two years, in fact. This foray into science fiction reveals no weakness in his prose and the transition is seamless. Places in Darkness is a strong genre-based thriller with a good cast of flawed characters and some agile writing that cleverly conceals a few surprises. The third person present takes a few pages to get used to, along with Brookmyre’s use of thought tracking, but once you are used to these things, the pages turn quickly and the claustrophobic world of the CdC quickly becomes an intriguing and mysterious place to escape to.
We begin with a murder. Then the opening scenes of the book’s first part introduce us to Alice Blake, the newly appointed head of security from Earth, on her way to the station that will be her new home. Alice’s scenic transfer to the station reminded me of similar moments in classic science fiction novels, where the writer uses the moment to seduce the reader with a rich description of their space vista, their futuristic technology and the sense of wonder that comes with both. Brookmyre clearly knows this expectation and uses the opportunity to give the reader enough of Alice’s context and background, but he also makes use of the characters around her to bring his own take to the situation. The building irritation and prejudice of the moment are deftly conveyed, demonstrating that Alice’s high status in her post will mean she is to encounter opposition.
This is also the moment where we begin to get a detailed understanding of Brookmyre’s mesh technology, a personal Google, accessible with a thought, the system has been around for a long time. We meet the architect of the technology and its perceived limitations are carefully described, setting up part of the plot for later.
Brookmyre’s second protagonist is a CdC detective, Nikki Freeman, known on the station as ‘Nikki Fixx’. As an insider to the corrupt society of the space station, she provides a counter point to Alice, allowing us to explore the station’s underbelly and get a visceral sense of the dystopia behind the purpose of the CdC. This is where Brookmyre populates the world of the novel and again, we get a sense of the meticulous thought that has gone into depicting this space society future. The multi-cultural and multi-racial society has an international character, reminiscent of places in our modern world that are diverse and comfortable with themselves. But there is also a fragility and tension at the heart of everything, ready to build and explode, should the story require it.
As the murder investigation develops, the two characters become unlikely allies. Again, Brookmyre handles this deftly, balancing the distrust and agendas of both. Nikki and Alice are uneasy around each other, their missions both compliment and contradict as they struggle to learn the truth behind what is happening on the station.
Brookmyre handles the revelations carefully to ensure each bit of new information does not completely sate the reader’s hunger and keeps you turning the pages to the end. Whilst the pace quickens, it does not spiral out of control, and you never get the sense that the writer is losing his command of the story.
Places in Darkness is an excellent science fiction thriller. I look forward to seeing Chris Brookmyre return to the world of Alice Blake, Nikki Freeman and the CdC.
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