Titanshade is the debut fantasy-noir novel from Dan Stout. It certainly has a lot going for it. There’s a city in the centre of an ice-field, whose economic survival depends on slowly depleting oil reserves. There’s different species living side by side, with all the socio-cultural tension which that brings. There’s politicians who have an agenda to promote, and little care for what damage they’ll do. There’s sorcerors who can bring back the dead for a bit of a chat. There’s a police force whose members have a penchant for graft, planting evidence, and applying a swift phonebook to the side of the head of a problem when an interrogation won’t solve it. Oh, and there is, of course, a murder
So yeah, there’s a lot going on here. The first thing I have to say is that, with all of these things going on, there’s a sense of style, and a vivid sense of place. The style – well, it feels like a blend between the hard-edged noir of Hammett and Ellroy, and the blurred excesses of an extravagant Seventies. Wide collars, smart shades and smart mouths are available in equal measure. The place? The place is Titanshade. It’s a city that sits on the edge of nowhere. An urban hub nestled against a mountain, with freezing plains in every direction. A city of rings, each ring a little further out than the last, each ring a little colder than the last. It’s a city built on a desire to escape government intrusion – in the far end of nowhere – but also on wealth. This is an oil town, whose liquid gold has kept the populace in work and in ready cash for quite some time. You can feel the sense of the past in the prose – in characters in richly decorated offices, looking out on run-down drill-rigs. In the neighbourhoods in the city which still hold some of their care and class, but are just that little bit more decrepit than the year before. This is a city on the edge of a downturn, hanging on to its former glory by its fingernails. And the prose gives us that – in the sparkling white of the snow, in the rust and steel gleam of the oil rigs. In the energy of the populace, warming themselves in the city’s heart, and in the cool calculation of its leadership. This is a place which comes alive on the page, which pulls you into its streets and makes you feel the clamour, the drive, the need to be alive – and the undercurrent sin the same streets, the darker pulses of the urban heart. Titanshade lives.
Our protagonist in this town is Carter. Carter works homicide in Titanshade, a place where the dead can be revived to answer awkward questions (albeit with no guarantee that they’ll be answered), and where corruption makes sure that inconvenient answers are delicately swept under the rug, along with the people who found them. Carter hits a lot of familiar notes – he’s down on his luck, he has a mysterious past, he’s not a completely straight shooter, but has limits; for all that, they ring true. Carter’s voice is wry, thoughtful, aware of his position, but determined to do some good despite himself. The colloquial tone makes for an accessible read, and if Carter isn’t always the best person, still he’s easy to empathise with.
Watching with Carter’s eyes works especially well when compared to his partner, who, apart from having mandibles (being from one of Titanshade’s other resident species), is new to the city. He’s keen to learn, keen not to mess up, and keen to do the right thing – but far, fasr less keen to be seen anywhere near Carter. There relationship is a small joy in the text, as they circle each other, trying to reach a rapprochement through banter, the odd bite of street-food, and examining the occasional murder scene.
Both, I have to say, manage the tricky feat of feeling alive, of feeling like people. I felt their successes, their fears, their victories and defeats. They’re ably supported by a broader cast of memorable figures – from the down-home oil baron, to the activists trying to help get sex-workers off the street, to ice-cold political operatives. There’s a lot going on here, and the people in it have their own lives and their own agenda.
The plot – well, I shan’t give anything away. It starts with a murder, which is how Carter finds himself involved. But even as the investigation is hitting its stride, there are suggestions that there are other things going on – including politics, blackmail and betrayal. It’s a story whose central post is a complex murder with many different angles, and the investigation is both convincing and compelling. You’ll want to know whodunit, but I, at least, also wanted to know why they dunnit. There’s more than enough action here to set the pulse racing, and the prose pulls absolutely no punches in that regard; but there’s a strong emotional centre as well, and a believable mystery with a strong resolution sat at the heart of the text.
This is a solid debut, giving us a fascinating new world, some fun characters who feel real, and a story which, I guarantee will keep you turning pages into the wee hours. Give it a whirl!