Orbit | 2017 (9 November) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
Ciudad de Cielo (CdC) is the City in the Sky, humanity’s gateway to the stars – or at least that is the intention. Located many thousands of kilometres above Earth, CdC is a space station comprising two enormous Wheels that whirl around a central trunk, each Wheel the home to thousands of men and women. Their mission is to create and construct the first of the generation starships that will carry mankind to a new home. There are no children. Everyone on CdC has a place and a purpose, an inspiration, and so there is no serious crime. That is the official line.
In reality CdC is also known to its inhabitants as Seedee, a fitting name indeed. While the prosperous enjoy comfort and space in Wheel Two, the rest are squeezed into Wheel One and life thrives behind doors, in bars, clubs, brothels, gambling dens, gardens of sin. Contraband alcohol is the currency of choice and competition for the good stuff is fierce. Two club-owning gangsters are fighting a turf war but, when one of their men is murdered horribly, the authorities are most concerned that news of it doesn’t reach Earth. Wheel One is policed by the Seguridad and Nicola Freeman is one of their sergeants. She’s the perfect choice to investigate the murder, not because she’s a fine detective but because, if there’s a pie, you can be sure Nikki Fixx has got her finger in it. Unfortunately, Nikki has been given a partner, a young and new arrival to CdC, Jessica Cho, a formal observer from Earth’s Federation of National Governments and a walking rule book. And nothing at all as she seems.
Chris Brookmyre is a familiar name in crime fiction for his Jack Parlabane novels (I loved Black Widow). Now he looks to the future and the claustrophobic, dangerous and exhilarating space station of CdC. As soon as I heard about Places in the Darkness I was desperate to read it. Its premise is fantastic. But what I discovered in these pages is something even better than that.
The worldbuilding in Places in the Darkness is jaw droppingly brilliant. It is immediately striking, vivid, dark, chaotic but also strangely appealing. And this is all summed up by the character of Nikki Fixx. She is dangerous to know, undoubtedly hated by many for good reason, corrupt, venal and at times extremely unpleasant. But we’re never entirely allowed to believe the worst, even when we watch her bulldoze her way through other people’s lives. Watching Nikki and watching the underworld of Seedee get through each one of its strange days is compelling. It’s violent and thirsty, sex-driven and greedy. But somehow it works. Until the murder happens and it’s soon clear that this odd world is about to be turned upside down.
The character of Nikki is offset by Jessica and, as the novel went on, I began to like her just as much as Nikki. This is helped by the pacey, present-tense narrative shifting between the two. Sometimes events overlap slightly as we see them from both perspectives. We’re not let into all the secrets by any means – and there are an awful lot of those. It’s as if we’re slowly allowed into Nikki’s confidence just as we’re slowly acquainted with Jessica.
The pace builds and before you know it we’re aboard a runaway train. Places in the Darkness is tremendously exciting. Full of surprises, deadly chases and dark conspiracies, all taking place in the contrasting shadows and artificial light of Ciudad de Cielo. When I reached the end I was surprised at how far this book had taken me. It’s not a straightforward journey but it is most certainly thrilling. This is one of the best science fiction crime novels I’ve read in a long time – with the best of characters, story and mood – and I can only hope that Chris Brookmyre takes us into orbit or beyond again.