The city of Recoletta is an artifact of the Catastrophe. Like the bomb shelters that saved humanity after the Catastrophe, most of the city is built underground, and most of its residents rarely see the surface. It’s a point of pride to those who manage never to do so. In this gaslight world of tenement and tunnels, the Council rules, openly in some ways, secretly in others. When murders and death stalk not the common man, but the high and mighty in Recoletta, the conflict and dangers run from those high and mighty to every aspect of society. Recoletta is a city, a world in miniature on the edge, and these murders are set to very possibly give it a very big push.
Carrie Patel’s debut novel The Buried Life introduces us to Recoletta and its citizenry and gives us a picture of it and their lives in the wake of a series of shocking murders. Our points of view are primarily a pair of strong women characters.
One is Inspector Liesl Malone, a prestigious and competent member of the Metropolitan Police. Teamed up with fresh-into-the-ranks Rafe Sundar, Malone’s investigations into the murders form one of the two backbones of the novels. The other primary protagonist is someone far lower on the social scale: Jane Lin. Jane works as a specialized washerwoman and seamstress for the rich and powerful in Recoletta. This is a position that allows someone of relatively low class access to the high class circles in which the murders and intrigue of the novel takes place in a way parallel to but very differently than Malone.
Malone and Jane are distinctly different in their perspectives and strengths, and illuminate their portions of the novel equally, but in very different ways. This is particularly visible on the uncommon occasions when the two of them intersect in the same scene. The characters witness the same events different and focus on different things, providing multiple perspectives on the action. The competent, driven Liesl and the young, in over her head Jane both have interesting character arcs and development as well. I particularly enjoyed how the characters reacted very differently to the overlapping characters of their social networks due to their different social class and temperament.
Recoletta itself is an intriguing character of a locale to set a novel. A gaslight, post apocalypse, mostly subterranean city that has more than a little inspiration and overtones of the new weird. In addition to the physical aspects of the world, the sociological and political ones are intriguing as well. The bureaucratic Departments, the scheming nobles, and even the tangled web within the Metropolitan Police are detailed well, and help form some of the scaffolding around the actual mystery of the murders. We get hints and intimations of a deeper world, and a deeper mystery as to how the world got this way.
This worldbuilding, then reminds me of a taste of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon, a dose of the scheming Universities in Paul McAuley’s Confluence novels, and an air and aura of mystery and thriller in the bargain. A gaslight quasi Victorian underground city, though, in the end, is something new under the sun, and having two female protagonists as our leads and views into the city even more so. Patel gets high marks for trying to bring something new, and wandering the boundary of science fiction and fantasy to do it.
There are questions I DID have about the worldbuilding and its protrayal, questions that were partially answered (and only raised further) by revelations in the book that I will not divulge here. This IS our world, or a branching off of it at the very least, but just how and why it got that way appear to be questions left for the next volume. There is a bit of thinness to the book that could have been fleshed out somewhat. The novel also does have a few additional first novel flaws, a lack of polish in a few corners of characters that detracted somewhat from the read. However, I was more than entertained, and bought into the world more than enough to want to know answers to the questions raised in the book.
I look forward to, in the manner of the good inspectors, digging in and finding those answers in the next volume.