Thursday, December 23, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Far from the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson

Far From The Light of Heaven is my first Tade Thompson book. Thompson is a Nigerian-British author best known for the Wormwood Trilogy featuring the books Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection, and The Rosewater Redemption. He won the Arthur C. Clarke award for Rosewater in 2019. This series is set in Nigeria in 2066 and is often referred to as part of the Afrofuturism movement.  I have only read a few Afrofuturism books (Lagoon by Nnedi Okrafor comes to mind) but so far I haven’t been that impressed (although I am a big fan of N.K. Jemisin's award-winning Broken Earth trilogy). The description of Rosewater as genre mashup of “Africanfuturism, cyberpunk, biopunk, Afropunk, zombie-shocker, [and] love story” is not appealing to me so I haven’t read it yet, although I do typically like genre mash-ups (like the apocalyptic police procedural The Last Policeman by Ben Winters). However, Far From The Light of Heaven piqued my interest when I saw the official summary for the book:

The colony ship Ragtime docks in the Lagos system, having traveled light-years to bring one thousand sleeping souls to a new home among the stars. But when first mate Michelle Campion rouses, she discovers some of the sleepers will never wake.

Answering Campion’s distress call, investigator Rasheed Fin is tasked with finding out who is responsible for these deaths. Soon a sinister mystery unfolds aboard the gigantic vessel, one that will have repercussions for the entire system—from the scheming politicians of Lagos station, to the colony planet Bloodroot, to other far-flung systems, and indeed to Earth itself.

From this we can tell that there are two primary protagonists in the story, Rasheed and Michelle (Shell). We are introduced to Shell first, meeting her on Earth even before she boards the Ragtime as first mate. Surprisingly, even though we meet Rasheed last, I identified with him more than her.

Their motivations for why they act the way they do in response to the extraordinary series of events that befall them on Ragtime are very different from each other. Shell is responsible for the welfare of the one thousand passengers in suspended animation and is shattered that 31 of them have been dismembered on her watch (even though it happened while she was sleeping for 10 years like all the other humans on the spaceship). But (somewhat bizarrely, I think) she insists on maintaining her exercise and sleep schedule while the ship (especially the A.I. which is the actual captain of Ragtime) becomes more and more erratic. In the end, I didn’t really connect with Shell or empathize with her. Rasheed on the other hand we are introduced to with the context that he has a problematic incident in his past that involves an on-duty killing of an alien. He's the assigned investigator to the incident on the ship and he’s single mindedly focused on discovering who committed the murders (even when paying more attention to surviving his time on Ragtime becomes more and more urgent). I was more interested in what happens to him (and his partner Salvo, a humanoid android or Artificial). 

There are other important characters in the book but I don’t want to mention them because to do so would reveal spoilers. However, I will say one strength of the book is the diversity of its characters. As a mystery-science fiction genre mashup, Far From The Light of Heaven works much better as science fiction than as mystery. We do find out who committed the crime(s) but there’s really no way we could have figured it out from the information provided to the reader.

Overall, I am glad that I read Far From The Light of Heaven although I don’t think it’s outstanding or very memorable. That’s fine, not everything has to be a barn burner or award-winning. An entertaining genre novel with a diverse cast and a vision of the far future that is centered around the existence of black people (or people of African descent) is a net good in of itself, in my view.

Title: Far From The Light of Heaven.
Tade Thompson.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 385 pages.
Publisher: Orbit.
Date Published: October 26, 2021.
Date Read: December 19, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).


Thursday, December 16, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Back Road (DCI Tom Douglas, #2) by Rachel Abbott

The Back Road is the second book by Rachel Abbott that I have read, after Only The Innocent. These are the first two books in the long-running series of police procedural, psychological thrillers starring DCI Tom Douglas. The series is up to 10 books so far and generally each entry has an average rating above 4.0 on Goodreads with 10,000+ ratings, which is quite rare (and impressive) territory for a series of genre books.

In The Back Road Tom Douglas has left his position at the Met in London and is living in a small suburb called Little Melham when word comes of a young girl who was knocked over by a car and left for dead in the middle of the night. The entire village is shocked when more information comes out that Abbie  had been abducted via online messaging prior to the automobile incident on the back road, which is a short cut that basically only locals know about. Is the culprit someone they know?

The book is primarily told from the perspective of Ellie Saunders, a married mother of two young children who had been driving on the back road to see her lover the night in question and who happens to be Tom Douglas' neighbor. Her husband is a school teacher who knew Abbie and her sister, who was visiting at the time knows something is going on with her sister's marriage but it distracted by her increasing attraction to Tom. Ellie works as a nurse and is involved in Abbie's care and tries to comfort Abbie's concerned (adoptive)  parents.

I don't know if two data points makes a trend but in the two books I have read featuring DCI Tom Douglas female characters have been at the center of the mystery, often prime suspects or at the very least persons of interest with either motive, opportunity or means to commit the crime(s) in question. Also, the mental and emotional states of the women in the books have been complex and mostly hidden from Tom but presented in first person to the reader. In Only The Innocent, more time was spent on the investigation procedures because Tom was on the job then while in The Back Road we see the  investigation proceeding from the eyes of Ellie, the suspect. (Something similar had happened in the first book as well.)

For this reason, I would definitely call both DCI Tom Douglas books I have read so far to be psychological thrillers, because a significant aspect of the text is about learning about the psychology of the main characters and how the crime affects their emotions and thoughts. We also get access to Tom's thoughts and feelings about the crimes, the investigation and the suspects s well as developments in his personal life. This is pretty typical with police procedural, investigator-driven mysteries but what I think is new/different here is the focus on the internal psychological conflict(s) of others besides the primary protagonists. And, I'm not sure that I'm a fan of this particular twist on the genre. It takes attention away from the narrative tension of the mystery itself (who did it, how will "we" figure out who did it and what will the consequences be) which usually dominates works in the mystery genre. That, and the fact that there's not very much diversity in the supporting characters in the books is definitely making me reassess my commitment to continuing this series. If I'm going to read murder-mysteries with non-genre elements I'd prefer to spend my time with stories that have female protagonists (like Jane Casey's Maeve Kerrigan, Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway, Robert Bryndza's Erika Foster and Robert Dugoni's Tracy Crosswhite) or diverse casts (like Peter James DCI Roy Grace and Sarah Hilary's Marnie Rome). That being said, I do also enjoy books with just a plain old white guy as the protagonist (like C.J. Box's Joe Pickett and William Kent Krueger's Cork O'Connor).

Overall, The Back Road is an entertaining mystery novel with substantial suspense and psychological content. For those looking for a more traditional police procedural crime thriller I would suggest look elsewhere but clearly there are many people who appreciate Rachel Abbott's approach to the genre and I can see why.

Title: The Back Road.
Rachel Abbott.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 472 pages.
Publisher: Black Dot Publishing .
Date Published: March 8, 2013.
Date Read: November 19, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+/A- (3.5/4.0).



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