Blackfish City by Sam J Miller (review copy from Orbit) is a thoughtful near-future thriller. The floating city of Qaanaq in the Arctic has become a place of refuge in the aftermath of the Climate Wars that have ripped apart the world as we know it. A huge cultural melting pot of refugees, it is a place where capitalism runs unfettered. The majority of the wealth is held by a tiny group of people known as shareholders, while the vast majority of people scrape out a living however they can. But the city is also plagued by a strange, incurable, degenerative disease known as ‘the breaks’ which is passed on by close physical contact.
Life in Qaanaq is disrupted by the arrival of a woman known as the orcamancer. She appears to be one of a group of people thought to be extinct, who were nanobonded to animals and able to communicate with them. She is silent – but violent – and the reason for her journey to Qaanaq is unclear. Four of Qaanaq’s residents are drawn together to unravel the mystery of the orcamancer – Fill, a shareholder’s grandson who has contracted a particularly virulent form of the breaks; Ankit, a staffer for one of the local elected politicians; Soq, a young, gender-fluid messenger with ambitions; and Kaev, who makes his living as a beam fighter (one of Qaanaq’s sports).
There is a satisfying mystery at the heart of Blackfish City, which draws together the four viewpoint characters neatly with a nice, slow reveal. The world-building is also extremely rich, with Miller having put a huge amount of work into his post-Climate Wars setting. You can almost smell the fish sauce and hear the sound of the waves while you are reading. But for all that, this is a book that struggles to rise above those things. The plotting is extremely slow, particularly at the beginning of the novel. While Blackfish City is rich and immersive as a reading experience, it fails to deliver much beyond a competent thriller in an innovative and well-constructed setting.
Goodreads rating: 3*