Review of The Buried Life
In the underground city of Recoletta, society is distinctly stratified and run by seemingly efficient oligarchic Directorates. Inspector Liesl Malone begins looking into the unprovoked murder of a high-class citizen, colloquially dubbed whitenails, when more deaths occur, and she gets squeezed out of the case by the Directorate of Preservation. Determined to understand what is happening in her city, even if it means going against an organization that prides itself on keeping history’s secrets, Malone and her partner, Rafe, begin a clandestine investigation into what has societies most powerful people afraid and in the crosshairs of a killer.
Caught up in the murders is laundress Jane Lin, who caters to the tastes of her whitenail clientele. As her clients become victims, she is met with suspicion on all sides as she begins her own hunt, hoping to help Malone find the murderer before Jane ends up as another loose end that needs to be cut.
Welcome to Post-Apocalyptia, Children
The strangeness of the setting is the strongest element of the novel. It is a mix of steampunk, post-apocalyptic dystopia, detective story, espionage thriller, and fantasy adventure set in a subterranean urban environment. For the most part, the elements all fit together much better than they have any right to do so. This novel has more in common with the Low Town series or the game Dishonored than it does with traditional fantasy novels. Patel has some of the world building styling of China Miéville, but lacks much of the pretensions—don’t expect to find the word “oneiric” in The Buried Life. Patel’s prose is typically more straightforward, though Jane Lin gets plenty of exchanges that show an influence of Jane Austen. In some ways, Jane is the real protagonist of the book—she has a character arc, makes dramatic choices, and is much more accessible to readers. She plays into the strengths of the novel’s quasi-Victorian steampunk flavor by being a protagonist in the same lineage as Jane Eyre.
The alchemy of genre elements is also interesting in that the book features adults and is marketed to them. A reader sees where if Patel were a more cynical author, she could have made a few changes, put teenagers in the lead roles, and jumped on the bandwagon to cash in while the “Dystopian Y.A. Lit” gravy train is still rolling. The fact she didn’t and stuck to telling the story she wants to tell is a mark in her favor.
The novel is not without problematic developments. Roman Arnault is a character that gets talked about far more than he actually does anything in the book. There are other characters whose sole purpose is to talk at length about Arnault (130-2). Whether he is a dangerous and mysterious man is hardly established. Everyone seems to think he is, and the reader is told several times. While this aura may have an enticing effect on Jane, it becomes a chore to the reader to have to hear about him over and over rather than seeing him do anything. On a related note, the novel pulls an interesting twist in having the bloody work he’s supposed to do actually be accomplished by Jane, or at least it seems so for a while (344-51).
On the other end of this spectrum is Malone who is a cipher. Ostensibly the protagonist, she remains closed off to the reader for much of the novel. One might be inclined to believe Patel is using a convention from hard-boiled detective fiction, but at no point is Malone significantly characterized outside of her profession. Any moments she does have for self-reflection or to even explain or justify herself to other characters in the text do not shine any light on who she might be. This dead zone around Malone puts her in contrast with Arnault—who is talked about too much—and Jane, who has plenty of interaction and character moments that let the readers know who she is other than a laundress in difficult, potentially fatal circumstances. The most insight readers get into Malone—when she seems the most human—is when she is above ground, and the audience is treated to her agoraphobia (298-9).
Apart from the characters, the novel on its own creates a sense of diminishing satisfaction. The climax and resolution are rushed, with a character that suddenly appears and sets revolutionary events in motion that allows the principle characters no real choice but to go along. This makes much of the final third of The Buried Life as something of a let down, though it may provide momentum for the inevitable sequel. With much of the heavy lifting of the world building out of the way, the following novels could prove interesting if they springboard into action and deal with the ramifications at the end of this one. It would also mean more opportunity for certain characters to reveal different facets of themselves.
The Buried Life makes for an interesting read for anyone looking for a non-traditional fantasy or science-fiction story. As a debut novel, Patel provides a sharp and refreshing story that is worth a read.
Patel, Carrie. The Buried Life. Nottingham, UK: Angry Robot, 2015.
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© 2015 Seth Tomko