Liquid Crystal Nightingale by Eeleen Lee

The Blurb On The Back:

Go deeper, they said.  Look closer. 

Pleo Tanza is a survivor.  Her father was broken by tragedy, her twin sister is dead – chewed up and spat out by the corruption and injustice of Chatoyance – but she’s going to make it, whatever it takes.  She’s going to get off this rock.

But escape is for the rich or lucky.  Pleo’s framed for the murder of a rival student – the daughter of one of the colony’s wealthy, squabbling clans – and goes on the run, setting off a chain of events that could destroy the fragile balance of the old colony forever …

You can order Liquid Crystal Nightingale by Eeleen Lee 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 3447.  Pleo Tanza is a tyro-level gemologist student at Chatoyance Polytechnikal on Chatoyance, a colony in the outer Kuiper belt.  Pleo’s parents are miners and ordinarily, neither Pleo nor her twin sister, Cerussa, would expect to get a place at Polytechnikal as it requires expensive, invasive body implants to perform their later roles.  However her father, Idilman, was the sole survivor of an attack on the mining operation he was supervising by a mysterious race known as the Artisans and the mining company gave all of the miners’ children experimental implants and the chance to improve their lives through Polytechnikal in order to get better paying jobs.

Not everyone adjusts to having implants though – the procedure to get them is traumatising – and some at Polytechnikal choose to commit suicide, including Cerussa.  Grief-stricken at her sister’s death, Plea is more determined than ever to get off Chatoyance and has been saving all her money to do so.  But when a fla-tessen duel (a mix of martial arts and dance involving lethal fans) with her rival Gia Aront goes tragically wrong, Pleo finds herself wanted for the murder of the daughter of one of Chatoyance’s wealthiest and most powerful families.  

With Senior Investigator Dumortier and SeForTec operative Nadira Morad on Pleo’s tail, it soon becomes clear that there’s something rotten going on in Chatoyance and nothing in the colony will ever be the same again …

Eeleen Lee’s debut SF thriller (the first in duology) successfully creates a future that feels very alien while also facing similar issues of unaccountable corporations, unchecked oligarchies and systemic corruption.  However the thriller part didn’t work as there’s so much world building that the pacing falls away while the mystery is a little obvious but there’s a lot of interesting ideas here such that I’d definitely read the sequel.

Lee has succeeded in creating a futuristic colony that manages to feel completely alien but also very familiar.  The use of body modifications is seriously creepy and Lee does well at showing how some people on Chatoyance are more machine than human now but also how horrific the procedures are to obtain these modifications (a scene where Pleo remembers her own procedure is especially hideous when she sees what’s happening to her hands and every time she uses her forceps, I honestly winced).  At the same time, Pleo’s modifications tie in with the themes of unaccountable corporations seeking to exploit their workers as there’s a hint that the experimental nature of her modifications suggest that something shady is going on and Lee does well at showing how even the suspicious Pleo knows that she has to take them if she’s to have any hope for a better future.

Another key theme of the book is the venal corruption of the ruling clans and the petty squabbles that they have with each other.  This is partly shown through Pleo’s issues with Gia (who makes no secret of her contempt for Pleo and the other miners’ children) but also through Dumortier and Morad’s investigation, which takes them up to the ruling families in their expensive homes.  To be honest, I would have preferred it had Morad not made an appearance because although it’s interesting to have a she takes the body modification theme to the next level (essentially she is put into stasis and put into a new body when needed) and I liked the idea of a supercharged security agent, she doesn’t bring a lot to the plot here other than offer a genuine threat to the power of the clans.

Similarly I was disappointed that Dumortier doesn’t do a huge amount of investigating within the book.  This is partly because the identity of the killer is signalled very early on so there’s not a huge amount for him to do other than to reveal layers of world building about how Chatoyance works and while he has some good scenes – notably with the fla-tessen instructor Saurebaras – I felt that he could have had more to do and that if he had, then it would have improved the thriller element of the plot, especially as Pleo doesn’t do a lot of investigating herself either so that sense of urgency and tension is just missing.  It’s also hampered by some oblique references to a different crime that didn’t seem to fit into the plot until literally right at the end that Dumortier seems to be fully aware of despite not having really investigated it.

As a protagonist, Pleo has both strengths and weaknesses.  I liked her determination to get off the planet and the fact that she’s smart enough to know that the mining corporation is using her and the other miners’ kids (even if she can’t really oppose it).  She’s quite impulsive in some ways though, although I did understand why she’s so defensive and how that can be used against her.  I wanted to know more about her relationship between her and Cerussa and especially why Cerussa committed suicide but I also wanted to know more about her relationship with Gia because some of the revelations late on in the book left me a little confused.  Additionally, I felt that more could have been done to develop her relationship with her parents because while there’s a lot in terms of their backstory, the relationship post Cerussa’s suicide is underdeveloped.

There’s a lot of world building and back story in this book and for the most part I really enjoyed it.  Lee sets out so many different elements at work within Chatoyance so the colony always feels fully fleshed out and I loved touches such as self-destructing paper, the suspended cars that carry people around the colony and Setona’s modifications that allow her to stay still in the window of her gem shop with her display leopard for long periods.  However I did come away from the book thinking that Lee was so keen to fully realise the Chatoyance world that it came at the expense of the plot, which does get a little lost at times.  In addition, I felt that Lee is too keen to show her world whereas at times I needed it to be concretely explained and told to me – that does emphasise the alien nature of this future but can also be disorientating as well.

Ultimately, although I thought that the plot was a little too loose and lacking in tension to work as a thriller, the SF elements are very well done, highly imaginative and hold a lot of promise for a sequel in terms of where this world can go.  Ultimately, I would definitely check out that sequel and look forward to seeing what Lee does next.  

LIQUID CRYSTAL NIGHTINGALE was released in the United Kingdom on 19th March 2020.  Thanks to Abaddon Books for the review copy of this book.

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