The Buried Life is a post-apocalyptic mystery novel by American author Carrie Patel. In it we follow two main characters, police inspector Liesl Malone and Jane, a laundress with a strange past. Investigating a series of murders that threaten to shake the very foundations of the underground city of Recoletta, our protagonists risk their liberty and lives in the pursuit of the truth. Altogether a pretty interesting read, with a neat world, if one not especially well developed. A few of the post-apocalyptic tropes that are interesting and a few that are a little tired combine to plant this pretty firmly middle-of-the-road for me. It scores a few extra points for creating the kind of female protagonists that SFF needs more of, but as great as they are to see, a few of the detracting qualities tend to cancel them out.
The gaslight and shadows of the underground city of Recoletta hide secrets and lies. When Inspector Liesl Malone investigates the murder of a renowned historian, she finds herself stonewalled by the all-powerful Directorate of Preservation – Recoletta’s top-secret historical research facility.
When a second high-profile murder threatens the very fabric of city society, Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar must tread carefully, lest they fall victim to not only the criminals they seek, but the government which purports to protect them. Knowledge is power, and power must be preserved at all costs…
So lets start with the bright spots. First and foremost, characters. As I review, I tend to pay a good deal of attention to the social ramifications of content I read and review. I’ve called out books written by self-proclaiming feminists which fail the Bechdel test, something which is decidedly not the case here with The Buried Life. It would have been so easy and so typical for our straight-laced, eyes on the job Inspector Malone to end up being played off her young dashing male partner Rafe for a love angle, or even just the good old ‘getting you to unwind’ thing that happens. Instead Malone has her own crap going on. She has her own desires and interests and plans for herself, and after being brought together with Rafe she…keeps on having all of those things. She’s intellectually engaged in what’s going on, makes her own decisions, and doesn’t have to pull that ‘I must be better than everybody else always so the men respect me’ thing that passes for strong female protagonism most of the time. Instead she is just good at her job and gets the respect you’d get for being good at your job. It was quite refreshing. She’s even allowed to make decisions that have great impact on the story all on her lonesome! It really sucks that this is a better-than-average character because of that but here we are. Jane as well is independant, takes care of herself, and while she seems to fall pretty hard for the charm of the mysterious and dangerous Roman Arnault, she still keeps her wits about her, and maybe has more going on that it seems at first. Brava all around really.
The setting of Recoletta itself was pretty interesting. All underground, interconnected cave and caverns, with the glowy gaslight that gives the steampunk subgenre its name, it was pretty cool. The big divide of class between districts felt very much Victorian London without all of the other baggage that comes along with it. Of course, as the story develops, and the sense of place expands out to where you realise where they are, it became a little less interesting to me. If you’re going to put me in a post-apocalypse, you can leave me there. You don’t have to connect it up with a previous country, let alone a particular part of a particular city. It left me feeling a little like I’d just been shown the Statue of Liberty scene in The Planet of the Apes, only without any of the impact since it had been done before. If we could have spent more time with the city itself, exploring more nooks and crannies, and left the surface and the overall sense of place a little more minimized, I feel like I’d probably have enjoyed it more.
As a story, we’re back to the middle-of-the-road. The controlling slightly dystopian oligarchy where the knowledge of before is closely guarded behind physical and legislative walls, the whole idea that writing like Shakespeare and Orwell is forbidden to own, and only kept under lock and key for chosen few to see? It’s been done IN the very pieces of writing being referenced in this one. While the whole ‘information is secret’ thing ends up driving the plot pretty hard, it didn’t even need to. We could have gotten where we ended up any number of ways. Which isn’t to say the story itself was poorly told. Patel is a Narrative Designer at Obsidian Entertainment (who’ve been involved in the Neverwinter Nights, Fallout and Knights of the Old Republic licenses) and her ability to structure and execute on a story definitely shows here. It’s not the most novel idea, or the best execution of the idea I’ve ever read, but I’ve read a lot of books, and I’ve read books in this exact genre/pastiche which were miles behind this. I enjoyed myself, and will almost certainly enjoy the sequel Cities and Thrones expected to be released in July of this year.
If you enjoy Gaslight (The Steampunk elements were quite light, another bonus for me, as I tend to find it usually overwrought and overdone) or mysteries or post-apocalypse, or great female protagonists, there’s a lot to recommend The Buried Life. An interesting tale with a well told story, enjoyable characters, and just the right amount of mystery to keep a mystery fan engaged, but not so much that it feels like a mystery novel. Good stuff.
Dan Received an Advanced Review Copy of this novel from Angry Robot via NetGalley