The Buried Life, Carie Patel
Right, book review time (again). I’ve been wanting to write about this one for some time now…
It’s a long time After The End, and the city of Recoletta is a survivor of civilisation in a world that’s largely reverted to nature. And what follows next is completely different from what you’re expecting, because this is not your average post-apocalyptic novel.
What it’s about
The city of Recoletta exists at some indeterminate-but-long time after the Catastrophe. The Catastrophe caused the total collapse of the previous civilisation, and apparently the deaths of the vast majority of its population. At some point during those dark days, survivors sought refuge in a series of underground shelters. These tunnels and galleries eventually expanded into the underground city of Recoletta. So far, so normal on the post-apocalypse script – and then, wonderfully and astonishingly, we go delightfully off-script. All those familiar post-apocalyptic City-in-a-Bottle tropes? Recoletta would like to stick two fingers up at them…
The plot itself concerns a murder within Recolettan high society, and the wider ramifications of said murder.
Police inspector Liesl Malone and her new rookie partner Rafe Sundar are assigned to the case of the shock killing of a prominent historian from Recoletta’s intellectual community. The investigation initially seems relatively routine, but Liesl and her new ally quickly discover hints of implications extending both up and down throughout Recoletta’s class-stratified society and also, outside of said society.
What I liked
Recoletta is not your average city in a bottle.
In fact, it’s barely bottled at all. It’s not even a legal requirement for people to live below ground – they just mostly do it out of long-standing habit. (The city has publicly-accessible aboveground suburbs, in fact.) Even more so, Recoletta isn’t isolated. In fact it’s part of a rail network linking it to a handful of other population centres scattered across the post-Catastrophe continent. A significant plot point concerns the arrival of a delegation from the city of South Haven. In addition, Recoletta’s world is multi-racial – one significant character is from a city called Neuvo Laredo, which is apparently vaguely Latino in character. People in Recoletta have a wide variety of surnames and backgrounds.
Liesl is an interesting and well-drawn character. She’s competent and capable, but doesn’t descend into any ‘hardboiled detective’ clichés. In addition the book has several other significant female characters, all of whom are plot-relevant and none of whom are window dressing. There are no Bechdel test concerns here 🙂
The plot is interesting. I’d like to talk about the ending, but I can’t without spoiling it – drat. Suffice to say, it’s an intriguing exploration of a sort of grey and greyer morality. No-one here is really evil, but on the other hand the idealists do some rather dubious things. Recoletta’s Concilliar government are a long way from any reasonable model of democratic accountability – in fact they’re explicitly not any sort of democracy at all – but just as equally, within their own value-system, the Councillors’ actions are a long way from evil. There’s even a possible case to be argued that they may even have been right. (I don’t necessarily subscribe to that view, but I think you could make that argument in good faith.)
What I found problematic
First of all, some of the dialogue was a little bit clunky. There’s a scene near the beginning where someone is actually asked in as many words, “Have you told anyone?” The results of that are exactly what you might expect 🙂 However, I didn’t find the dialogue-clunking to be a major problem.
Right, onto some niggles with the world itself…
Recoletta itself has some issues from an engineering and science point of view. I wonder about the structural stability of huge galleries more than half a mile below the Earth’s surface. Also, the technology is explicitly neo-Victorian, minus any electricity – and the issue of coal smoke in enclosed tunnels is never really addressed. There’s a vague mention of ventilation shafts from the surface at one point, but I would have liked to see the mechanics of an underground city developed further.
The novel is an explicitly political one; consequently I found the vagueness over how the Council actually operates a bit awkward. On the one hand, the government here is pretty secretive, but on the other hand the Councillors enjoy a very high social status and they don’t hide that status at all. You’d think a membership list would be available, if nothing else. Also, I found the absence of any formal hierarchy within the Council puzzling – no Speaker or Chairperson? It also isn’t clear where new Councillors come from when old ones die. (I think the implication is that the Council co-opts new members from amongst the whitenailed wealthy as and when it needs to – but we’re never told this.) I suspect that a system like this would quickly ossify into an actual aristocracy – but I have to admit, getting away from hereditary nobility clichés was quite welcome, so I won’t hold this against the novel.
Another odd aspect of Recoletta’s society is the apparent complete absence of organised religion. It’s never even mentioned – apparently none of Recoletta’s people have any spiritual urges at all. This is either oversight, or it’s a very clever little bit of hinting about one other thing.
That thing would be, just what was the Catastrophe? We’re never told. The Earth’s natural environment appears to be more or less intact, and some events later in the book imply that whatever happened, it couldn’t have been a nuclear war. (Certain plot-relevant things, well, they simply wouldn’t exist anymore if there had been a nuclear interchange. I can’t say any more because spoilers, though.) However, I think there are a few hints. The Council censors history through the Department of Preservation; organised religion doesn’t exist in Recoletta and the city’s people apparently prize “privacy” as a key necessity. My fanon theory is that there may have been a particularly-horrible religious war as part of the Catastrophe – that could set up a post-crash situation where the above social changes actually make sense.
This is a book that’s well worth reading. Read it in particular if you’d like to see credibly-human, plausibly-drawn female (and male) characters, and if you’d like some post-apocalyptic fiction but you’re bored of all the clichés. Also read it if you’d like to see an examination of themes of censorship and benign authoritarianism.
However, if you need every detail in the background nailed down, then that aspect may prove difficult.