From Darkest Skies is the debut novel from Sam Peters (review copy from Gollancz). It’s a crime thriller set on a colony world in space. Agent Keon Rause is newly returned home and investigating the deth from drug overdose of a celebrity, while on the side investigating the death of his wife in a terrorist attack several years previously.
This is solid and dependable stuff. Think of a mismatched crew of investigators, led by Rause, all with different skills and mysterious backgrounds. Think of a simple investigation that reveals a major conspiracy that threatens the world. Think of signs that the wife’s death was not all it appeared to be. You know what to expect with this kind of thing.
The book does have some interesting aspects to it. Agent Rause has created an illegal android analogue of his late wife, Alysha, with a personality matrix built from everything that has been recorded of her life, opinions and what she did and believed. Rause uses it as a comfort as he fails to come to terms with her death. But it’s an imperfect copy, lacking Alysha’s inner life and deepest thoughts. The android is unable to help him piece together what motivated Alysha to run away in her final hours of life and find herself on a train that was blown up by terrorists. From Darkest Skies asks us how well we can ever know a person, even in a world of omni-present social media and surveillance.
Some interesting world-building is hinted at too. Alien beings called The Masters were responsible for the destruction of large parts of Earth, and for dispersing its population throughout the universe on a number of colony worlds. This piece of history is only mentioned in passing in this novel, but if offers some fascinating hints of where future books could go.
I will watch with interest to see what Peters comes up with next. This is a promising debut.
Goodreads rating: 3*
Want You Gone is a pitch-perfect thriller from Chris Broomyre (review copy from Little Brown). In this latest instalment of Brookmyre’s Parlabane novels, Jack is forced to address the twin challenges of cyber crime and online journalism, teaming up with a teenage hacker to uncover a plot to steal a new invention from a major biotechnology company. Parlabane, increasingly feeling like a dinosaur in the digital age, is under pressure to deliver a big scoop for his new employers, but finds himself an unwitting victim when his hacker collaborator blackmails him into assisting them to break into that company and steal a prototype and plans for an unknown person.
The first thing to say is that this is an impeccably researched novel Brookmyre really knows his stuff – or has some great research contacts – when it comes to writing about the threat and opportunity posed by the online world. This is not a Stross or Doctorow style polemic. It’s an authentic depiction of what is possible and the opportunities created by human folly and social engineering.
There is something wonderful about the odd couple team of Parlabane and Sam Morpeth coming together to solve the case. Different generations, but both operating on the margins of the law. Parlabane is more used to physically breaking into buildings to search for evidence for his stories, but Sam is a whizz at breaking into systems to achieve the same thing, without ever needing to pick a lock. She is an incredibly convincing character: the shy, bullied teenager who escapes from a life of poverty into an online world where her alter ego is a renowned and super-confident hacker. There are some lovely moments of humour in the novel where one has a solution to a problem the other has been wrestling with for ages.
The plot is full of twists and turns that will completely blindside you, and there are moments of real page-turning peril. Want You Gone is one of Brookmyre’s best recent works.
Goodreads rating: 4*
I must confess, Jack Parlabane isn’t my favourite of Chris Brookmyre‘s characters, even if he is the author’s most famous creation. There’s something about the grumpy journalist willing to resort to unethical methods in pursuit of a good story that normally just doesn’t click for me.
In Black Widow, Brookmyre’s latest (published by Little, Brown, who gave me a review copy through NetGalley), Parlabane is approached by the sister of a man killed when his car apparently ran off the road in an accident. The sister believes her brother was murdered by his wife, a surgeon, who used the ‘accident’ to cover up the murder. Scenting a story, Parlabane agrees to investigate. From there, the story rattles along at a satisfying pace as Parlabane and the police investigate in parallel. As always, it is full of satisfying twists and turns and surprises.
The Parlabane of Black Widow is a diminished man. He is separated from his wife and living in a post-Leveson world of online media and recycled press releases that has little place for a journalist of his skills. He ekes out a living writing content-less content for various online publishers: puff pieces and glorified advertising material. In many ways, this bitter and self-pitying man is a more interesting character than the at times overbearing investigative journalist at the peak of his professional success.
But the real strength of Black Widow for me is in its portrayal of Diana Jager, the surgeon accused of her husband’s murder. Jager has a controversial past: her anonymous blog about sexism in the medical profession went viral after she was critical of hospital IT staff. Jager became the victim of doxxing and death threats, ultimately losing her job. In Black Widow, Brookmyre examines the way we judge women, particularly those bold enough to articulate their opinions, and the prevalence of threats of violence to silence them. Any woman who does not conform to a meek, wholesome stereotype is vulnerable to suspicion. Although she was the undoubted victim of online harassment, the episode makes it easy for people to suspect her of the revenge murder of her hospital IT worker husband of six months. The parallels with cases like that of Christopher Jefferies, whose reputation was destroyed by the media when he was arrested for the murder of missing woman Jo Yeates are obvious. (She was actually murdered by a neighbour.)
This contemporary, thoughtful sensibility is what lifts Black Widow, as so much of Brookmyre’s work, above the normal run of comic thrillers.
Goodreads rating: 4*