Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #130: Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis

You might not have heard of Ian Tregillis -- no harm there, since the world is large and full of wonders. But his first three novels were a mesmerizing alternate-history trilogy that mixed Tim Powers-ian fantasy with WWII spycraft and a kind of electricpunk SF to tell a grand and masterful story -- and any writer who can do that, especially right out of the gate, is someone to keep track of and celebrate as loudly as possible. (That trilogy, by the way, is made up of Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and Necessary Evil -- they're three of the best spec-fic books of the past decade and I recommend them highly.)

It's always interesting -- alternately depressing and thrilling -- to see what new writers do once their first big project is behind them, to see which way they jump once they have the choice. Tregillis is at that point, after that "Milkweed Tryptych" trilogy ended, and the way he went is to take some of the same genre mixture -- a little SF, a little fantasy, more than a little eschatology -- and send it off in a very different direction. What came out is Something More Than Night, a standalone novel of angels and fast-talking private eyes, of the end of the world and the true foundations of the world, of one tarnished angel and one seemingly normal human woman.

Their intertwined stories are told in alternating chapters -- first Bayliss, the minor angel, living on Earth for at least a century and affecting the style of a Chandleresque PI for reasons he doesn't quite explain. Then Molly Pruett, visiting a dingy near-future Australia (all diminished hopes and blighted dreams, driven by global warming and an orbital trash cascade that knocked out all useful satellites) with her recovering-junkie brother to attend their mother's funeral. Bayliss has a mission: the angel Gabriel has just died -- just been murdered -- and he has to recruit a replacement immediately, to keep the world going. Molly wasn't his choice, but she accidentally got stuck into that job -- and now she's the first human to ever have an afterlife, the first new angel since before the creation of the universe.

Bayliss explains her new role and scope in dialogue that's so filled with jargon and slang -- the first that of her new company of angels; the latter his own version of '30s tough-guy patter -- that Molly doesn't really understand, and neither does the reader, for a long time. This is a flaw in Bayliss's work -- or in Tregillis's novel -- inasmuch as we and Molly assume that his purpose is clear, precise communications, but only that far.

Molly struggles with her new scope and life, first seeking out her ex-girlfriend and learning badly what the touch of an angel can really do to a human. She has a bit more luck with her brother, now sunk into double mourning and ready to crawl back into a needle. But her only real connection with her new world is Bayliss -- she speaks to no other angels, has no other friends or rivals or co-workers or enemies.

In fact, Something More Than Night -- despite the potential scope of the angels' travel throughout the physical universe and beyond -- is practically a chamber drama, centering on Bayliss and Molly, with a small handful of humans firmly as supporting cast and only a few angels, none of them given real personalities or serious agency, circling around on their own mostly opaque errands. This is purposeful on Tregillis's part -- Something More Than Night has several things that look like flaws that are built into Tregillis's cosmology and eventual ending -- but it does mean the reader has to trust him for a long time, through many Bayliss wisecracks and plenty of scenes that he translates into PI terms for our benefit rather than trying to tell us what really is happening.

The armature of the plot is a mystery -- first, supposedly, the question of Gabriel's death, though that quickly is shoved into the background. After that, Bayliss and Molly set off on separate investigations of a Chicago-area priest and the Plenary Indulgences (yes, this is near future, and they're back) that he granted to a number of his parishioners. Frankly, the plot wanders around quite a bit, to bring in scenes and concepts Tregillis will need later, even if their justification at the time is the slightest bit confusing.

I found myself wondering if some or all of Something More Than Night was written before the Milkweed books; this is a good afterlife fantasy with an intriguingly different view of the world of angels and their role in maintaining the world, but it relies on coincidence and simple misdirection much more than those books did. Molly in particular is a compelling and complex character -- Bayliss has problems that, like so much else in this book, are baked into and required by that big reveal at the end -- and Something More Than Night is worth reading just for her.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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