Actually, to call it a dystopia is putting it mildly. The author has created a tiered society, both socially and geographically. The sole city seems to resemble a tower, one of dizzying heights and depths. The upper reaches appear to lead a tolerable existence, fed by their dependence on shadowy and seemingly all-powerful corporations. The lower reaches seem to range from moderately unpleasant to downright hostile. Wright does an excellent job of immersing the reader into this setting. Much like the semi-poisonous air of the lower reaches, his city reaches out to the reader, enfolds them within it, and starts to feel alive. Grotesque, yes. Frightening, absolutely. But very much an entity, packed with its own feel, and with lives being lived within it. Admittedly, those lives are, to steal an aphorism, nasty, brutish and short – but still lives. The setting feels lived in, but at the same time it feels dreadful. The author’s done a good job here, not just in the patina of grime and hustle and bustle that defines a city, but in overlaying that with a gestalt mood of misery.
Of course, though the setting is typically unpleasant, it’s only part of the story. Another is the characters. Here things are a bit more of a mixed bag. The story centres around a private detective. A living embodiment of the noir tropes of the forties and fifties, with some modern adjustments. Our protagonist (hero seems somehow incorrect) is a hard drinking misanthrope, working for the money, using whatever’s left over after cheap booze to score rounds of recreational drugs. There’s the implication that his life was at one stage something more – possibly even something better – but this is only hinted at, and not explored within the text. Instead the reader spends their time in the moment, in the head of a man who is, if not actively unpleasant, at least slowly disintegrating; in this, he’s a mirror of the society around him.
Still, this central role demands a forceful personality, and we do get that. Some of the character building is typical of the genre; the vices noted above are practically de rigeur for noir detectives, even if they have been given a few rougher edges. That said, there’s a few nice sparks of originality here – mostly in the protagonists reactions to other characters, and in the way he recognises and mirrors their own humanity back to them. This supporting cast is rather diverse, ranging from the ingénue client, who begins the novel seeking justice for a murder and gradually shifts toward wanting revenge, through a rotating cast of antagonists, ranging from mildly malevolent to downright diabolical, and back to old friends of the protagonist, dragged back into this darker life under protest.
It’s in these relationships that the characters find their feet. Whilst their building blocks are common enough, and identifiable, the relationships crafted between them feel unique. There’s a few moments where it feels like they’re acting as the plot demands, rather than as personality might require, but these are relatively few, and the interactions between these awkward moments do help make the characters into, well, people; there’s a particularly good relationship between the protagonist and one of his old associates, a Doctor – just the right mix of thawing dislike, camaraderie, and shared experience, which made for a thoroughly enjoyable read.
One of the issues, though, is in the antagonists. Though the greater adversaries aren’t made clear at the start, both they and the lower tier of enemy are typified by their unrelenting malice. This is a book which demands shades of grey in the friendlier of its inhabitants – those in conflict with them are downright vile – and may suffer as a result, from feeling less complex than they might deserve.
The plot begins as the standard noir potboiler – it rattles along quite nicely until the final third, when the text changes gears a bit, ramping into a pace more reminiscent of a chase movie. There’s some interesting stuff here – the author explores the relevance and place of religion and spirituality in a secular society dominated by the immediate and the material. It feels a little heavy handed, but it was nice to see this approached and engaged with; I’m still pondering whether some parts of the plot and setting are flat out religious allegory, but they still made for a compelling read.
Overall then, the author has given us an excellent setting. Within that setting are characters that act within their standard roles, with occasional sparkles of humanity – it would be nice to see the relationships between them explored in more depth, to see more of that spark. The plot is interesting enough, and rattled along sufficiently to keep me interested and entertained in equal measure, and to keep me turning pages. If you’re in the mood for a neo-noir dystopia, this is a solid effort.