In a distant, post apocalyptic future, civilisation has returned to the surface. The city state of Recoletta remains mostly underground, buried with its secrets. Inspector Liesl Malone knows the city intimately; so when the upper class “whitenails” stonewall her murder investigation of one of their own, she is forced into a corner, choosing between the pursuit of justice and the structure of the city she serves. Accidentally caught up in the intrigue is Jane Lin, a curious young laundress who frequently finds herself dealing with more metaphorical dirty laundry.
Genre wise, the Buried Life sits somewhere in between dystopia and steampunk, crime and political thriller. Carrie Patel uses florid, Victorian language – “nary” appears more than once – and the occasionally jarring third person conditional past tense. It’s Patel’s first novel, and there are a lot of allusions to China Mieville’s The City & the City – both books have literally spilt cities and focus on the ramifications of unheard of crimes. Yet where Mieville’s novel remains in his speculative vein, rendering images of his impossible cities in the reader’s imagination, Patel struggles to convey her vision of Recoletta. The structure of the streets is difficult to picture, as is the interplay between them. At times the lack of physical description leaves the reader too in the dark, questioning not only the motives of the characters in relation to the murders (a natural point of tension in crime novels) but also the hierarchy of the city itself. Almost as if to make up for the muddled world building, Inspector Malone is a cardboard cut out of a hardened detective desperate for truth. Patel is a skilled enough writer to place the stereotype in the middle of a mystery with a rookie partner and have it remain interesting. The characterisation of other players, particularly Jane’s love interest, is somewhat jumpy and frustrating, often a little out of step with their prescribed motivations. For the most part these can be forgiven retrospectively, once the twist has been revealed. The broad simplicity makes the book accessible to adult and younger readers alike, and is also a side effect of the novel being Patel’s first. Already there are hints and glimpses of stronger writing to come.
The mystery at the heart of the novel is quick paced and tense. Thematically, the Buried World provides a gentle real world critique. Patel isn’t pushing for allegory, instead using the familiar interplay between power and knowledge to propel the narrative. The conclusion is open ended enough for a sequel, but not offensively so – the ending is satisfying in its own right. As a debut novel, the Buried Life demonstrates Patel’s potential trajectory as an excellent genre author.
The Buried Life is available from Angry Robot Publishing from March 3rd, 2015. A sequel titled “Cities and Thrones” is already in the works.