As with many books, if you have good copy you can often hook me early. Far from the Light of Heaven promises a kind of locked room murder mystery aboard a sleeper ship far from Earth. Tade Thompson delivers on this premise in most senses of the word, and overall I enjoyed the book. Yet there are enough rough parts to the novel to make me hesitate to shout its praises or pick up a sequel should one be forthcoming.
I received an eARC from NetGalley and Orbit in exchange for this review.
Michelle “Shel” Campion is the captain of the starship Ragtime, which will be taking 1000 sleeping passengers to another star system. She doesn’t have to do anything, though, because the ship has an advanced AI that actually runs the whole flight. She’s just there as backup. Until she wakes up at their destination and finds the ship’s AI offline and a sizable fraction of her passengers murdered. Shel has to team up with an investigator from Bloodroot, the colony that was her destination, and also deal with curious interlopers from the nearby Lagos Station. But there’s more going on here than meets the eye, and their unknown adversary will stop from nothing to keep them from solving this mystery and saving the colonists.
Probably the best part of this story is the way that Thompson writes each chapter, each scene, with a sense of urgency and drama. Even in dialogue-heavy exchanges, such as those that establish Finn’s disgraced status on Bloodroot, or Shel and Finn’s initial encounter, the tension is often electric. This is a story that feels noir despite being set in a future where humanity travels the stars, and I recognize that is quite a feat.
This tension occludes the actual mystery, however, with dramatic twists sometimes derailing the investigation. Though Thompson avoids too much exposition, often deferring explanation about an event until later in the novel when it makes sense, the result is a plot that becomes increasingly convoluted as it unfolds. Without going into spoilers, let’s just say that a significant portion of the antagonist’s motivation occurs for reasons that are largely unrelated to what’s happening here and now. While I don’t think that makes the plot bad per se, I just want potential readers to understand that this book lacks the tidy and cozy context of most locked room mysteries.
Similarly, I wish Thompson had done more worldbuilding in the sense that we have precious little understanding of the governmental structures of this society, either on Earth, within the solar system, or in other star systems. Resolving such ambiguity isn’t strictly necessary for the story—and, again, I appreciate Thompson’s forbearance of exposition—but I felt like I was left with a very incomplete picture of this future. Though nominally Afrofuturist, at least in the corner we get to see, with Lagos Station and Bloodroot both sporting predominantly Nigerian people and their descendants, the book could have given us a much richer understanding of these elements.
Finally, the Lambers. Initially presented as very alien beings who exist at least partially outside of our spacetime (including a kind of hybrid who is one of the main characters), we learn a different origin story for the Lambers later in the book. Again, I don’t mind this revelation—though it doesn’t feel particularly earned in the sense that at no time was I guided to ask what the Lambers were. It didn’t feel like that was a mystery, and then I was told what they are and I was just like … ok, cool, I guess?
With all of this criticism you would be forgiven for thinking I disliked Far from the Light of Heaven. It’s more accurate to say I’m being hard on it because I feel like it had a lot of potential to be so much more than it is. This book is a competent story, with some solid character development, excellent action sequences, and plenty of drama and tension. If you like mystery thrillers more than I, then you will enjoy this novel. In my case, I was hoping for something that I didn’t ultimately find here.