Genre mashups are the lifeblood of sci-fi and fantasy, and one of the most enduring examples of the form is the combination of SFF trappings and old-school noir detective tropes. From Bradbury’s Death is a Lonely Business, to Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, to Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music (not to mention just about everything Jim Butcher ever wrote), there are few genres that play so well together.
That doesn’t mean to suggest that mashing the two together is easy, but debut novelist Dan Stout certainly makes it seem so with Titanshade, the first book in a new science fantasy series with an assured noir tone and an incredibly detailed, lived-in world.
Titanshade is a city in the midst of an icy desert, where life is only possible because of the energy given off by the demigod imprisoned in the earth below. Its suffering heats the city, powered by the citizens’ muttered prayers. It’s a densely populated, gritty place, where magic once dominated, fueled by the mysterious substance known as manna, until the stores of the stuff started running dry. An industrial revolution stepped in, substituting magic with with good old-fashioned oil. But as the story opens on a gruesome murder scene—the victim is one of a frog-like species of people called Squibs, whose viscera has a powerful effect on many humans when they smell it, sometimes resulting in complete loss of impulse control and a strong increase in appetite—the oil is running dry, too, and all the big money players are scheming and maneuvering to keep their piece of Titanshade’s pie.
Carter is a cop with a reputation for being more trouble than he’s worth, but he’s good at what he does. If he isn’t as dirty as his colleagues assume, he isn’t a saint, either. But he’s been tasked with solving this killing, and he’s going to do his job.
It’s a classic noir set up, all right: a corrupt city, cops who are playing their own games, a murder that is a dangling thread that, once pulled, unspools a much larger mystery. Sure enough, the victim—a Squib named Garson Harberdine—turns out to be part of a diplomatic team that has journeyed to the city to negotiate a deal for wind farms to replace the drying oil wells. Carter is assigned an inhuman babysitter in the form of rookie cop named Ajax, a member of yet another inhuman species, the Mollenkampi (you can get a glimpse of one on the book’s amazing cover), and quickly finds himself snared in a web of political intrigue, prostitution, blackmail, religion, oil barons, and police corruption. No one’s telling the full truth, every clue leads to a dead end or near-death, and through it all, Stout steadily fills in details until the city feels like a real place.
Mixed in with the fantastical elements are a bunch of delightfully incongruent, decidedly non-science fictional elements.Carter types his reports on a typewriter and relies on pay phones to contact his cources. The cops drive normal cars, and in general, Titanshade is painted as a place offering an incredible mixture of the fantastic and the mundane—a vision of own world, had it been a little late to enter the computer age. The anachronistic effect works like gangbusters—if you can accept that a Divination Officer can arrives at a crime scene and use a bit of manna to communicate with the victim, why shouldn’t Carter hide in an an alley with a flask filled with cheap whiskey, just like any old Earthbound detective? The push-and-pull of influences results in moments of wonderful imagery: giant beetles pulling carts through the city streets, favored by a religious sect somewhat like the American Amish.
Along with the worldbuilding, Stout nails the nuance of his characters. There are no paper villains or heroes here; the police are painted as people with individual motivations, prejudices, weaknesses, and strengths. They are depicted as dedicated, imperfect beings working as best they can in a corrupt system skewed by money, careerism, and simple moral exhaustion. It’s quite satisfying to watch them lurch towards something like justice—or as close they’re gonna get. Carter’s inexhaustible efforts to protect his friends and seek the truth pay off in pure noir style as he stumbles onto an ever larger and more twisted conspiracy, and Stout gets extra credit for making the increasingly convoluted plot both wholly unexpected and yet organic to the story and the world in which it is set.
Stout’s mix of magic and the bald realism of simple greed results in one of the year’s most entertaining debuts. It’s a book you’ll close, happy in the knowledge that it is but the first in a series.
To put it another way: Forget it, Jake. It’s Titanshade.
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