Gollancz | 2017 (20 April) | 328p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is five years now since the death of Alysha, the wife of agent Keona Rause. Also an agent, Alysha was blown up on a night train as it made its way across their home world of Magenta. Rause doesn’t understand why Alysha was on that train. It wasn’t for passengers. She and a small group of other people had smuggled themselves aboard and they were blown up by a bomber, later caught. He can only assume that Alysha was following leads to a case. But whatever it was, the knowledge died with her and, besides, Rause was forcibly removed from investigations into the bombing, sent to Earth on a secondment for five years. That ended in disgrace when the alien artefact he had been guarding was stolen almost from under his nose. Rause is now back in Magenta, suffering from the terrible increase in gravity, getting used to the endless pummelling of Magenta’s rain, and investigating the death of one of the planet’s very few golden socialites. But Rause has an itch he has to scratch – why was his wife on that train?
Rause is not entirely alone. After his wife’s death, he had her memories and digital presence uploaded into a physical walking, talking ‘shell’. Its intelligence is also incorporated into his ‘Servant’, the AI that everyone carries around inside their brain, easing their way through life. But Liss, as he calls it/her, is completely illegal. And whether Liss is a help or hindrance is another matter entirely as Rause works through his feelings for a wife he mourns and her reconstructed digital presence which he struggles to understand.
The premise of From Darkest Skies is an extremely compelling one, combining some of the familiar ideas of crime fiction with the wonder of its science fiction setting on Magenta, complemented by some intriguing technology. Magenta is an extraordinary planet, named for the violet hue its land and water derives from its ‘organic rock-eating purple alien dust’. It is both beautiful and hostile, as too is its appalling weather which batters the plant with killer winds and painful, stabbing rain for days on end. But the story of how humans reached Magenta is one of the most fascinating things of all about From Darkest Skies. The novel is overshadowed by the enigmatic Masters, the alien race that altered Earth in terrible ways from which it can never recover before disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. Their intent seemed to be to move humans across the Galaxy, giving them the technology to move freely, while leaving others hopelessly stranded. But why?
From Darkest Skies raises lots of questions, about the Masters, about Alysha, about the murdered socialite and about life as a whole on this unfriendly yet striking planet of Magenta. Sam Peters makes the reader want to know the answers every bit as much as Rause who is barely holding on. I liked Rause very much indeed. I felt for his plight. And I also cared for his fellow agents, some of whom he’d known before and others he hadn’t. They are a colourful bunch, likeable yet crotchety. But who wouldn’t be crotchety on this strange planet?
Sam Peters blends crime and science fiction well. The plotting is excellent and so too is the use of technology. It’s not overplayed but it is intriguing. This is a future society, one shaped by the Masters, apocalypse, the media (social and otherwise) and by a powerful sense of distance from Earth, a distance that is brought home every minute of the day by the unrelenting force of gravity. We’re familiar with walking, talking AIs but I did find Liss pleasingly unusual and unknowable. I really felt for Rause. My only issue would be the difficulty I had remembering some of the unusual names.
From Darkest Skies is a debut novel and it is a fine one. I would definitely welcome another novel set in this enigmatic world of Magenta and the Masters – there is so much more I want to know about both – but I’ll be very happy to go wherever Sam Peters takes us next.