Places In The Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

The Blurb On The Back:

”This is as close to a city without crime as mankind has ever seen.”

Ciudad de Cielo is the ‘city in the sky’, a space station where hundreds of scientists and engineers work in Earth’s orbit, building the colony shop that will one day take humanity to the stars.  When a mutilated body is found on the CDC, the eyes of the world are watching.

Top-of-the-class investigator, Alice Blake, is sent from Earth to team up with CDC’s Freeman – a jaded cop with more reason that most to distrust such planet side interference.  As the death toll climbs and factions aboard the station become more and more fractious, Freeman and Blake will discover clues to a conspiracy that threatens not only their own lives, but the future of humanity itself. 

You can order Places In The Darkness by Chris Brookmyre from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s some time in the future.  Earth wants to colonise the stars and has established a space station to carry out research and eventually build the space ships that will take us there.  Called Ciudad de Cielo (the City in the Sky – or CdC for short), the space station is controlled by the consortium of private businesses called the Quardriga under the watchful eye of the Federation of National Governments (FNG).    

Policing is controlled by the Seguridad and Dr Alice Blake is on her way to CdC to take over as its chief on behalf of the FNG on a short term appointment, intended as a fact-finding mission to see how CdC is being run and how Seguridad is preventing criminal behaviour.  But Blake’s appointment isn’t popular – the Quardiga has its own agenda and Seguridad doesn’t like outsiders interfering in its affairs – everyone knows that FNG likes nothing more than cutting purse strings and bringing in pointless controls on people’s lives and Blake is a stickler for the rules and enforcing the law.

Nikki Freeman (known as Nikki Fixx) is a sergeant in the Seguridad who shares the general low opinion of FNG lackeys and has a more fluid relationship with law enforcement.  A former LA police detective, like many people who came to CdC, she’s looking to escape her past but her life on the station straddles policing with “mediating” for local gangster and smuggler Yoram Ben Haim by making sure the local bars buy their booze from him rather than his rival Julio Martinez.  Sure, there are fights and turf wars on CdC and a seedy underbelly offering illicit hedonism from booze to sex to drugs and violence, but officially there’s never been a murder on the station …

Until now.

When the flayed remains of a man are found floating in a test chamber, Freeman is assigned the case and Blake (knowing the ramifications this will have for the delicate politics between the Quadriga and FNG and having heard of Freeman’s reputation) decides to work with her.  But the tensions between the pair mirror the tensions at work on the station – the haves -v- the have nots and the law-abiding -v- the law-breaking.  Nothing about the case is straightforward and as the two delve deeper into CdC’s underbelly, they realise that there are bigger forces at play whose plan goes much, much further than a mere space station …

Chris Brookmyre’s standalone novel is a clever mix of SF and hard boiled noir with a setting akin to the Western frontier and strong pacing.  The world building is great, bringing in tech, politics, economics and social commentary and I liked the different factions at play with their respective agendas but Freeman and Blake felt a bit stock at times and some of the emotional revelations in the final quarter weren’t earned.

I thought that the world building in this novel worked really well.  Brookmyre plunges you into this future world, using Blake and Freeman’s points of view to explain the things you need to know – e.g. Blake gives you the wider geopolitical and economic context to CdC while Freeman tells you what’s really going on up there.  There are a lot of ideas at play here, from the space elevator that takes you off planet (with a nice nod to Heinlein) to the two wheels of the space station – one where the wealthier residents are and one that’s more of an underbelly.  There’s a real Western frontier feel to CdC and Brookmyre conveys the grimy compromises and petty violence that keep the underbelly (Seedee) going and the prohibition on booze combined with the moralistic efforts of people like Helen Petitjean gives the smuggling element a 1920s vibe.  I enjoyed the tech elements such as the mesh that many people on CdC have fitted and the way it gives you control over your personal knowledge together with the lenses that people wear that hooks up with controls on the station.

I think it’s because this world building is so rich that Blake and Freeman suffer slightly in comparison – Blake in particular who is essentially a stick-in-the-mud rule enforcer appalled by the law breaking she’s witnessing on the station.  I have to say that there was an element of my having to suspend belief in her naivety, which Brookmyre partly explains away by reason of her background and a plot development in the final quarter that didn’t really work for me because it came so late and, in part, seemed like a justification for her flat behaviour. 

Freeman is more interesting and, for me, read as a more rounded character but she is still the stock cynical detective who turns a blind eye and tells herself she can’t change things.  My main problem with her though was that while we’re constantly told she’s self-loathing, the revelation as to why this is the case is pretty much dealt with in 2 lines in the final quarter and because there’s so little set-up, there is zero emotional punch to it and it doesn’t actually explain her subsequent behaviour.

Side characters are little more than plot points there to keep the action moving and, for me, they did that fine.  Given how much plot and background there is to the book, I was surprised at how pacy the read is although some of the clues couldn’t have been more obvious had they been framed in neon lights.  I did think that the book kinda lost it in the final quarter though – partly because of the sudden revelations and partly because the antagonist wasn’t that much of a surprise (and to me seemed a little flat).  To be fair, Brookmyre does wrap up almost all of his plot strands but he does so in a way that wasn’t so much neat as convenient (notably with regard to Helen Petitjean).

Criticisms aside, I did enjoy this book as a whole, mainly because I like books with a lot going on in them and I would definitely check out Brookmyre’s other work on the strength of this.

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