There is a moment in The Buried Life in which the protagonist, Inspector Liesl Malone, stumbles upon a ruined library. Carrie Patel describes the building, the jumbled stacks and scattered books, with reverence. Here is the repository of civilization: People, like Malone, and societies, like that which built the library, come and go, but by recording and storing our knowledge, humanity endures. Fittingly, the next scene involves gunshots. The pen and the sword, both sources of power. This is one of the many strange juxtapositions in a strange novel, The Buried Life (Angry Robot, July 29, 2014).
The setting for The Buried Life is unique: The underground city of Recoletta, approximately 300 years from the present. The ambiguous “Cataclysm” destroyed modern civilization. Whatever was involved, which may include war, given characters’ use of “antebellum” to describe the pre-Cataclysm era, it provoked in survivors an intense desire for privacy and security. Cities moved underground, and civilization reverted to Victorian technology. (Patel, perhaps unwittingly, outs herself as a historical materialist, as her society’s mode of production, Victorian, appears to dictate vaguely Victorian mores.) Patel borrows her title, of course, from the nineteenth century British poet Matthew Arnold.
The plot involves Inspector Malone’s investigation into the murders of several members of the Council, the oligarchy that rules Recoletta. Deprived of her official sanction to investigate by the secretive Council, Malone acts independently, with her new partner, Sundar, providing backup. Jane Lin, laundress to the ruling class, becomes involved when she stumbles upon the murderer. And all three are brought face-to-face with Roman Arnault, the elite’s “fixer.” Suffice it to say that their paths cross and their fates are intertwined; more cannot be said without giving away the entire plot.
Readers will be drawn to The Buried Life because of the setting. The “Cataclysm” is mysterious; we want to know what happened. Patel provides readers a taste of the back story throughout the book, just enough to whet their appetites. The underground setting is intriguing, too. I expected a lot of slinking through dark tunnels but, while my skulking quota was satisfied (2.5 incidents of skulking per page), the underground element is not fully realized. Given that the surface world is habitable and that citizens choose to live underground, it should not be surprising that Recoletta is a homey enough place. Indeed, it’s downright pleasant, with skylights that permit sunshine to reach the streets and enable Recolettans to keep up the day/night schedule “surface dwellers” enjoy. In other words, readers curious about Recoletta will find that it’s not much different from their own, albeit underground.
Patel’s characters are serviceable. Malone, the flinty detective, has a soul; a flashback to her years in the orphanage provides some insight into her character. Malone’s partner, Sundar, a former actor, serves as a handy foil. Patel uses Sundar as a recipient of Malone’s wisdom, thus shrouding explanations intended for the reader. Arnault is a puzzle, as he is meant to be, and Jane’s journalist friend, Frederick, provides some comic relief. Jane is the most interesting character, an entrepreneur of sorts whose place in the thick of things is a result not only of who she knows–Frederick, Malone, Arnault–but also a result of a filial connection to the larger plot. Patel nicely leaves the characters in a situation that demands a sequel and will have readers demanding to know what happens next.
The Buried Life, Patel’s first novel, is enjoyable, if not quite everything a reader might want. My hope is that Patel will go for greater (metaphorical) depth as she continues the series, both with her characters and especially the setting, which has potential. Patel picks up the pace in the second half of the book, and readers will find themselves wanting to know what’s going on behind the murders. Vaguely steampunk-ish but not quite classifiable, The Buried Life is recommended for readers comfortable straddling the border of fantasy and sci-fi; dedicated fantasists and hard sci-fi fans may want to go down another hole.