Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis is a wonderful, razor tight combination of noir and physics-both meta and quantum.
When Ian first posted the idea for the novel on his blog in February of 2012, I thought it sounded great as I am very much a fan of Chandler and my expectations were high. I was not let down at all. The book is fantastic; the writing is lovely.
We begin with the death of the angel Gabriel. Gabriel was one of the Seraphim and was very dead as his reentry set the sky aglow and drifting bits cause an odd snow in Australia. Bayliss, one of our narrators notes this and reminisces about Gabriel that:
He wasn’t just lovely, he was the kind of lovely that could make a bishop stomp his miter and curse a long blue streak on Easter Sunday.
Bayliss is also an angel although he has bummed about on Earth and has adopted the mannerisms of a hard-boiled detective. Hard boiled, but like the best of them, he seems to have a soft spot for women in a tight fix and a desire for knight-errantry. That and a touch of rye in his coffee.
During the light show of Gabriel’s fall, Bayliss clues us in to why the humans moving around him with downcast eyes aren’t noticing much:
But nobody looks up anymore. That stopped soon after the last satellites died. In the minds of most monkeys, thirty years of meteor showers was weak tea compared to the loss of decent long-term weather forecasts.
This also gives us a nice piece of world-building. The story happens in the not too distant future (50 or so years I would guess) and there has been a war that destroyed the satellites and prevents any new ones from the debris layer. From the early blurbs I was expecting the noir, the angels and the mystery, but Tregillis also mixes the fantasy elements with a strong dose of physics and math:
The light of a distant quasar twinkled with chromatic aberration as the fine-structure constant gave him a farewell salute from the twenty-first decimal place.
So, is the book fantasy or SF? I would have to go with a lovely confluence of the two.
With Gabriel gone, Bayliss starts trailing “a mugg with a bit of high-class fluff on his arm.” The “fluff” is Molly, who will be our second narrative voice and will also turn out to not be so fluffy:
Curls like brushed copper fluttered beneath the brim of her cloche. Her stride was firm and purposeful, like that of a CEO or dominatrix, moving without hesitation on the slick snow-dusted paving stones. She walked like the world was made of red carpet.
Molly turns into a strong independent voice through the course of the book. This is a departure from the classic noir line where the woman is usually there for the detective to react to or react for. Indeed, it’s a departure even from the majority of modern fiction. I addition to being a sharp operator in her own right, Molly is fully fleshed out as a character. She makes mistakes but then she takes action for those mistakes, Nothing passive about Molly.
As the novel progresses, Bayliss operates on Earth and in the meta space of the Pleroma where the angels male their homes out of their own desires. At one point he cases Gabriel’s joint and encounters some visitors. A classic noir scene, but not a classic location:
The newcomers were rummaging Gabby’s collection of sonnets; he’d liked to carve them into the crusts of neutron stars. Next they’d be cutting the mattress apart and pouring out the coffee cans. There were two of them. Each girded the heavens with diaphanous wings more transparent than a rich widow’s grief.
This juxtaposition of classic elements and complete originals continues through the story. In addition to the little details, you’ll encounter this lovely structure in the overall plot. Surprises aplenty, but I won’t say much about those.
I started the book here in Rochester and then read a big chunk on the plane and finished it on December 7th. That happened to be my 50th birthday and reading this was an excellent birthday treat to myself. Later that day, in the casino at the Bellagio the cocktail waitress asked what we wanted and I ordered a vodka gimlet. I tried it for flavor and it was just as I imagined and so I sat there thinking about cosmic strings and words more beautiful than ice on fire. 2013 isn’t quite over, but I think I’ll go ahead and call it for Something More Than Night being my favorite book of the year.
(For one last fun note, check out Ian’s glossary of noir terms here. While not needed for understanding the book, it is a fun and useful list in and of itself.)