What do you get when you let the dude who wrote about Nazi superhumans battling English warlocks write a story about a murdered archangel, a tool of righteous fury, a heavenly host of pissed off beings that can alter the very shape or reality, a dead femme fatale, and a chain-smoking wannabe Philip Marlowe? What you get is something that shouldn’t work. At all.
Like any good detective story, Ian Tregillis’ newest book Something More Than Night (a book which got its title from a like from a Raymond Chandler story), is set in a world of murder, dames, a missing valuable, and lies and betrayals, all involving plot twists upon plot twists. Thrusting together 1930s-style hardboiled detective noir with a physics-drenched fantasy about cosmic beings should mix about as well as oil and water. Something More Than Night should feel jarring and disconnected, full of purple prose, slow plotting, and mismatched tones.
It shouldn’t work, but it does. And it is glorious to behold.
It all starts when somebody murders the archangel Gabriel. A lowly nobody angel named Bayliss is tapped by the higher ups to help fill the vacuum left by the recently deceased, and, of course, being a lowly nobody, he botches the job. He shoves Molly, a stubborn, opinionated, complicated young woman, under a train instead of her less obstructive brother like he was supposed to. To make matters worse, when Gabby died, the Jericho Trumpet disappeared. To the rest of the heavenly Choir, that Trumpet is the most powerful thing in existence, so naturally they assume his redheaded replacement knows the score. Too bad she doesn’t.
Bayliss is so low on the totem pole that he’s practically trapped on earth. He can make little side trips here and there into his personal heaven (Magesterium) or into “Heaven” itself (Pleroma), but because he’s spent so much time on earth he’s adopted some of the quirkier habits of the “monkeys.” In particular, he’s got quite the fetish for playing Sam Spade, down to speaking in the jargon nonstop, much to Molly’s chagrin.
Playing the role of the noir antihero means adhering to certain tropes, and both luckily and unluckily for Molly, Bayliss feels responsible for dragging her into such a life-threatening mess. He sets about trying to sort out who killed Gabby and why. Molly, refusing to play the damsel in distress, takes matters into her own hands and runs her own parallel investigation. Good thing, too, because what she uncovers has set its sights on its own selfish means, with no regard for the mortal lives in the way. And just when you think you’ve sussed out Plot Twist #8952, Tregillis throws a wrench into the whole operation and you realize just how great a writer he really is.
I’ve written before about how much I enjoy Tregillis as an author. He doesn’t just command the English language, he bends it to his will. He shapes sentences and concepts that have never before been seen. The dialogue is as sparse as it is in the genre from whence he derived inspiration—Chandler often let Marlowe contemplate a case for several pages without any external conversation to clutter up the internal monologue—but when the characters finally speak it’s well worth listening to. But it’s his descriptions that get me every time. The way he invents impossible notions and phrases them in such a way that they feel believable. His writing style is poetic and evocative without being overwrought or turgid.
“A soft rain fell upward, from the floor, into a cloudless tangerine sky. Molly rinsed her blooded fingertips in the impossible rain and surveyed the shattered debris of her memory palace. The pantry door opened on the narthex of Notre Dame, where candles flickered in time to the grinding of a dying dishwasher. The kitchen table, the one she and Ria had bought at a garage sale before realizing it didn’t fit through the front door, now wobbled on uneven legs made of steam, lust, schadenfreude, and the sourness of bad lemon pudding. The trim around the ceiling had become the musty smell of an ex-girlfriend’s workout clothes forgotten at the bottom of the washing machine.”
And it just gets better from there, but if you still aren’t convinced, set your peepers on a bigger excerpt.
I could go on and on about the plot and how interesting, unique, and well-crafted it is. No, really. I had to cut out about 3 paragraphs of glowing praise just to get this review down to a manageable length. Instead I’ll just tell you that once again Tregillis has put most other authors to shame. He can world-build like nobody’s business, and does the kind of character development The Walking Dead writers only dream about. It’s rare in contemporary fiction for a main character to be both female and not completely dependent upon a male character or relegated to the helpless victim/love interest. It’s even rarer for that main female character to be a lesbian, and just as infrequent for said member of the LGBTQ* community to not be entirely defined by their sexuality, as if it was the totality of their background and personality. Cecil Baldwin, voice of Cecil the Narrator on the excellent podcast Welcome to Night Vale that you should totally be listening to, said, “Being gay is not a plot point. It’s not a token that you can say, ‘Look, we have a gay character! Isn’t that great? Aren’t we awesome?’ It’s part of a person and therefore it should be treated as such. It should be one facet of a character rather than the defining description of that character.” Tregillis has mastered that concept with flying colors.
And there are dozens of other little notions that pop up, things that are mentioned but not over-explained, both in terms of various characters and world building. The story is set sometime in the future, about 50-80 years or so from now, and how the world gets to the state it is when Bayliss first watches Gabriel fall to his death is meted out in drips and drabs throughout the novel. We never get a complete picture of what happened, nor does anyone ever sit anyone else down and infodump all over them. Something More Than Night, like his Milkweed Triptych, makes the reader work for the payoff. Some may find the physics chitter chatter just as impenetrable as the noir lingo, so the best advice I can give is to just go with it—or utilize his handy-dandy glossary. I still don’t entirely understand some of the concepts the book presents, but Tregillis always makes sure there’s enough of a hook for even the most confused reader to grab on to. Personally, I loved listening to Bayliss ramble on about ing-bings and spaghetti and bulls and keyhole peepers. Every reader should have Raymond Chandler on their reading lists. Those who already have a taste for hardboiled detective fiction will pick up on the many Easter eggs honoring James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Chandler scattered throughout (the line about orange groves as far as the eye could see is one of my favorites).
You know what’s awesome? Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis. Like, really awesome. Doubleplusgood awesome. It’s a swell time with a hotcha date and a shoe full of folding. And that’s all there is to it.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.