Emissaries from the Dead

by Adam-Troy Castro

Cover image

Series: Andrea Cort #1
Publisher: Eos
Copyright: March 2008
ISBN: 0-06-144372-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 387

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As a small child, Andrea Cort was a colonist on Bocai, part of a utopian project to create a mixed human and Bocaian community. Until, that is, all the members of the community woke up one day and started horrifically murdering each other for reasons that none of the survivors could ever explain. Now, she's protected from extradition by a life contract with the Diplomatic Corps and serves them as a special investigator.

The scene of the investigation of this book is the strange habitat One One One. The habitat was created by the AIsource, an alliance of artificial intelligences now independent of their original creators. It's in deep space, far from any sun, and would have remained entirely unknown to the other inhabitants of the galaxy if the AIsource hadn't announced its presence. The choice to announce it was baffling, since it contains a sentient species entirely under the control of the AIsource, something that's against the shared rules of all the other species, but which they wouldn't have known about if the AIsource hadn't drawn their attention to it. After extensive negotiations, one unofficial human research group has been allowed access, and now two of the members of that group have been murdered. That's where Andrea comes in.

This is Castro's first original solo novel, but he has a background in short fiction in the SF, fantasy, and horror genres and some previous collaborations and shared universe writing. The horror shows through a bit more than I'd personally prefer: the preface briefly describing Andrea's past would have been sufficient, but Castro goes back and shows it in horrific and gruesome detail as a flashback. His fight scenes are also strangely and disturbingly detailed. If you have a sensitive stomach, be aware that you may want to skim some parts of this.

The overall construction of this novel, though, is not horror. It's an SF murder mystery, about halfway between a procedural and a noir detective story. Andrea does follow a coherent procedure and uses an investigative technique more sophisticated than stirring the pot and seeing what jumps out, making it not quite noir, but it has the noir tendency towards story progress via attacks on the detective and quite a lot of ongoing tension. It also involves quite a lot of setup; be aware going in that we get over a hundred pages of description of the various research group members, the details of the crimes, possible motives, and the details of the artificial habitat without a lot of forward progress on understanding the crime.

Castro puts a lot of work into the design of the habitat despite leaving it mostly in the background. It could easily serve as the backdrop of a more typical Big Dumb Object SF novel. The habitable zone where the research team is and where all of Andrea's investigations take place is the effective "top" of the habitat, covered in dense foilage to which the native sentient species clings and crawls its entire life. Below is an effectively infinite fall into crushing acidic atmosphere. Castro managed to not set off my dislike of heights too badly, in part because he focuses more on Andrea's own dislike of heights rather than vividly describing the drop, but it's a constant presence throughout the novel and adds a persistant background tension. It also leads to some minor but neat clashes of perspective in conversations with the native species.

For most of the book, I would have described Emissaries from the Dead as an enjoyable but not horribly original detective novel with a neat science fiction background. But there are several interesting ending twists that I won't spoil and some decisions that quite surprised me. They don't have a large effect on the plot of this book, but they make for a fascinating hook and setup for later books in the series (and I see there is a sequel). It's definitely not the sort of thing that you want spoiled before reading this book, so avoid reading blurbs and details about the sequel before reading this one.

I wouldn't go out of my way to hunt down this book, but it's solid, enjoyable detective SF with a surprisingly good ending. I can see why it won the Philip K. Dick award (for best SF paperback original). Mildly recommended.

Followed by The Third Claw of God.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-11-27

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21