When I finally picked up Planetfall for my Reading the Hugos project this year, I was blown away by Emma Newman’s ideas and her original characters. It ended up ranked second on my Best Series ballot (just after The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden), so of course I couldn’t wait to continue the series. I am very pleased to say that my initial euphoria for the series continued with its second volume even though it was a completely different experience to Planetfall.
by Emma Newman
Published: Roc, 2016
Paperback: 369 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 46 minutes
Series: Planetfall #2
My rating: 7.5/10
Opening line: It’s times like these, when I’m hunkered in a doorway, waiting for a food market of dubious legality to be set up, that I find myself wishing I could eat like everyone else.
Acclaimed author Emma Newman returns to the captivating universe she created in Planetfall with a stunning science fiction mystery where one man’s murder is much more than it seems…
Govcorp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away; what made his father lose hope; what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to do why Casales was found dead in his hotel room—and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.
To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realizes that escaping the past is not so easy. There’s more to Casales’s death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realizes…
Carlos Moreno is a detective working off his debt as an indentured servant to the Noropean Ministry of Justice. When the leader of a religious cult is found dead, Carlos is sent to investigate, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that he himself was once part of that cult. He discovers a lot more than the usual stuff you’d expect from a murder mystery. Cause of death, murderer, murder weapon, sure. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And it all ties into the events that led to the story of Planetfall.
Although it’s called the Planetfall series, I heard that the individual books were tied together loosely and can all be read as standalones. That is true at least for the first two volumes (I have yet to find out about the rest). After Atlas takes place 40 years after the crew of Atlas left Earth to find god. If you’ve read Planetfall you already know what happens to the people on that space ship. But they also left something behind. First and foremost, a capsule that is supposed to be opened 40 years after their departure. Secondly, people! Carl is only one of them and he was only a baby when his mother got a coveted spot on Atlas and left him and his father on Earth to go searching for god…
After that came a time spent with the Circle, an anti-tech religious cult founded by Alejandro Casales. When Carl left the Circle, his life didn’t exactly become easier but finding out more details about how he came to be an indentured servant is part of the fun of this book, so I won’t spoil.
The idea itself is both brilliant and terrifying. Carl is one of the lucky ones. He worked his ass off to turn himself into a useful “asset” and so got a well-paying job with the Ministry of Justice. It’s not a bad job as such, but there are many, many little ways in which he is reminded that he is not free. Making choices is not an option. He goes where his boss says, he does what his boss wants, he has to keep his anger in check and never step out of line, or else his contract might be prolonged for a few years and freedom may creep ever further away…
Needless to say, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding. Whereas in Planetfall we saw a completely different planet with a small society of people, here we return to Earth and learn what’s been going on there. Not only is the world run by Govcorps – corporations that own everything and so are essentially the government – but people are chipped and constantly connected and monitored. The way Emma Newman used existing technology, spun the idea further, and created her version of a future Earth felt utterly real and very much like something out of Black Mirror. The tech is both a blessing and a curse – it’s nice when MyPhys monitors your heart rate and sends an ambulance your way in case of a heart attack, for example. It’s less nice when your boss finds out about an elevated heartrate in the presence of certain people, or when your flaring anger is reported to your superiors and gains you a black mark.
I also really enjoyed Carl’s relationship with food. Most food is printed – it looks like food and it has all the necessary nutritents, but it’s not food the way we know it. You don’t use something that has grown from the earth, prepare it, cook it, spice it, and then enjoy it. You just push a button and something resembling lasagna comes out. Carl’s one luxury is that he goes out of his way to get to real food and while it’s not a very important part of the book, I totally understood him and liked him all the better for it.
But this book is also a murder mystery. Carl is sent to the hotel where Alejandro Casales was found dead. And not just dead… hanged, drawn and quartered dead. He does what any good investigator would do – he interviews people, visits the scene of the crime, looks at the evidence and draws possible conclusions. The murder itself is actually solved pretty quickly, except some small details just don’t seem to add up. Even when it becomes truly clear who killed Alejandro and why, there is still a third of this book left to go. So while the murder mystery was engaging to read, it was not the most important part of the story.
Let me talk about Carl for a second. For quite a while, I didn’t know what to make of him. He is likable enough from the start and his reaction to journalists wanting interviews with the (former) baby that was left behind by his own mother when Atlas left, is understandable to say the least. But for a long time, I didn’t see how his work for the MoJ was all that bad. It read mostly like any old job and the fact that Carl is a slave didn’t really come into play. Until it does, of course! This story may be pretty fast-paced but the worldbuilding unfolds slowly. For that reason, one of the plot twists hit me really hard and apparently put a look of utter shock on my face (the boyfriend asked me if I was okay). Because the Govcorps that owns you doesn’t just decide where your job takes you. They also decide what restrictions on technology apply to you, what music you’re allowed to listen to, which websites to visit, which mersives to watch… As comparatively easy as Carl might have it, there is always this possibility hanging over his head that his owners (how fucked up is it that Earth would find its way back to slavery in this future setting?) could take everything away that makes life somewhat worth living for him.
We follow Carl as he unravels the mysteries within mysteries, but the side characters are worth mentioning as well. There aren’t many of them but as I think back, every single one of them felt multi-layered and real. There’s not even a single character that came across as totally good or totally bad. Even the hotel staff that Carl interviews and otherwise has little contact with, felt like real people. I don’t know how Emma Newman does that, but she is damn good at it!
Throughout the story, Carl explores not just a murder, but confronts his own past and his own history with Alejandro, as well as his fraught relationship with his father whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. Even his one friendship with fellow indentured servant Dee takes a hit. There’s a lot of emotional baggage to unpack for Carl and that was as much fun reading about as the plot itself.
This book does tie into the larger Planetfall universe in that the time to open that mysterious capsule has almost arrived when the story begins. No spoilers here, but I’ll let you know this much. You will get answers to the most pressing questions and Carl’s story – with its ups and downs – reaches a somewhat satisfying conclusion. The ending was phenomenally done, not because everything is suddenly all sunshine and happiness – that doesn’t seem possible in Newman’s version of Earth – but because it, like the book’s characters, felt so eerily real.
I didn’t love this book quite as much as I did Planetfall but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic sci-fi novel. I’m pretty sure I’ll finish the series this year because as wrapped-up as this story may be, there is a lot more to discover in this universe.
MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!