‘There’s power in stories and a story of power.’
This is a novel set in a fantasy world, and when I saw a map and a long list of gods, I did fear I was in for one of those interminable legendary back-stories before anything happened. But nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact we are plunged straight into a police-procedural whodunnit - finding out who, to be precise, strangled a man, sewed his lips together and left the body where it could easily be found.
This fantasy world is not actually unrecognisably different from our own; if you think it bizarre that an election should be conducted by means of six different groupings each nominating someone to tell a story, and the listeners voting for the narrative they prefer, ask yourself what happens among us. And our protagonist, Detective Cora Gorderheim, with her scruffy coat that acts both as concealer and comfort blanket, her disorderly office, her taste for gambling and her frustration with the machinations of Them In Charge, could fit very comfortably into our world too. Cora needs to find out not only whodunnit, but why; this is the first of a trilogy and by the end she has apparently solved the first question but is still partly puzzled by the second.
The setting is a capital city, Fenest, which is somewhat like a 19th-century earth city before the advent of the internal combustion engine. In her job, Cora is better acquainted with its mean streets than its fancy ones, and they are well evoked, as, later, are the docklands where another character plies his trade.
Precisely because it’s this kind of book, I shall not risk any spoilers. I will mention only that the novel revolves around the election going on in the capital, and the structure of this election, with the candidates’ nominees each telling a story, determines the structure of the book. Two of the stories are interpolated into this first part, and I assume the same will happen in parts 2 and 3. These stories are clearly going to be relevant to the book’s theme, which is basically an unjust society and (I assume) how to put it right. The first interpolated story is about how prejudice and fear are the children of ignorance; the second about the misuse of wealth to manipulate people’s lives. They are well written and not without interest in themselves, but I did wonder if they were not a little too long. I think my reason for feeling this is, in a way, a compliment to the novel: I was so intrigued by the main detective-story thread that I slightly resented it being delayed.
Several novels and poetry collections I’ve read lately take up the theme of refugees, strangers, and how we treat them, and so does this:
“If she’d wanted to forget about what she’d seen at Burlington, the ’sheets weren’t the place to go. The Daily Tales had little else to report. The cause of the plague was clear, said the unnamed writer: those coming to the city from outside its gates were to blame. A certain kind of person, for which Cora read ‘poor’ and ‘southern’. The ’sheet suggested a more selective entry policy was needed for future elections, ‘to protect the safety of Fenest’. Cora scrunched the sheet into a ball and threw it over the gig’s side. With any luck another gig would soon trample the ’sheet and its message into the muck; little good it would do in stopping the spread of such ideas. Even now, over breakfasts and first smokes, there would be people in Fenest saying to one another that southerners brought disease, because they were poor, because they were dirty, and so it only made sense to keep those people out… Her parents would have been loud in saying such things. Ruth wouldn’t have though. Cora picked up the other ’sheet from the floor. The Fenestiran Times took a different view of the plague. What could be more certain than sickness if people were left with nowhere to stay? The plague at Burlington was the result of the city’s neglect, not a fact of southerners being where they shouldn’t. That led neatly to the Perlish and their failure to invest in necessary things like new houses, more water pumps, drains. Which led back to the election. Like always.”
So will I read parts 2 and 3? Well, I think I might. As in all the best detective stories, Cora has solved some mysteries but uncovered others and I do want to know how it turns out, who wins the election and what Cora’s long-lost relative has to do with things. The writing was sharp enough to keep me hooked through this volume, and I think there’s some mileage in it yet.