And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed
Premee Mohamed’s novella And What Can We Offer You Tonight (2021) is set in a drowning city where human life is not cheap — it’s worthless. If starvation, violence or disease doesn’t kill you, probably one of the routine government “culls” will, unless you are one of the uber-wealthy, living elsewhere and treating the city like a personal playground/hunting-ground, or a person who services the very wealthy. This leads us to Jewel, our first-person narrator, a courtesan in an elite, exclusive and very expensive “house,” the House of Bicchieri.
Jewel gets a portion of every client’s payment, and a share of any tips; it seems like she would have enough money to escape the “gilded cage” in which she lives, if she wanted to, but the courtesans must pay for their own food, room and clothing, as well as any extras like jewelry and perfume. They are fined if they make errors. Jewel has worked for the two overseers, Serpentine and Jasper, for eleven years — when, for the first time ever, she misses an appointment, her “fine” unsurprisingly totals the exact balance in her account — which Serpentine and Jasper manage. This is terrible, but Jewel has bigger things on her mind. Winfield, one of the other courtesans and Jewel’s friend, was killed by a client, but she’s come back, and she’s alive. Kind of, anyway. And she wants vengeance.
And What Can We Offer You Tonight is hard to classify. The obvious horror element — a risen dead girl — didn’t feel like horror to me, because, like Jewel, I was on Win’s side. The entire economic structure of the drowning city is horrifying; Jewel’s life is horrifying. I guess that qualifies as horror. In fact I’m going to go with gothic horror. No, wait — dystopian gothic horror. Is that redundant? Tough, I’m sticking with it.
The story is even difficult to categorize by length. It comes in just under 19,000 words. I’d call it a novelette, but the publisher, Neon Hemlock, says it’s a novella. Who am I to argue?
I’ve dithered about what the story isn’t, so let me talk about what it is. It’s beautiful, with the beauty of a disturbing and vivid dream. It’s creepy — in fact, I think “creepy beauty” is Mohamed’s trademark. It’s witty. It’s angry, and it’s angering, as Jewel ponders the imbalance of power, the manipulation, valuelessness of her life, Win’s life and the lives of her friends. It’s suspenseful. Jewel fears that Win’s plan for vengeance will endanger her and the others, and soon it does.
What’s particularly disturbing and maddening is how thoroughly Jewel has internalized the bars of her cage. Even when she sees how they are being driven to turn on one another, she can’t quite stop herself from doing it too, even if she hates herself for it.
Just because the word count is low doesn’t mean And What Can We Offer You Tonight is a fast read. You’ll want to slow down to absorb the imagery, and the layers of horror at work here. It’s possible that Jewel delivers more internal monologues than she needs to about the nightmarish existence these characters face, because Mohamed depicts it so perfectly — and chillingly — in everyday scenes. She also shifts to the phantasmagorical with the grace of an Olympic ice skater, as in the early scene of the courtesans creating a funeral rite for Win.
Mohamed offers a fairly mundane vengeance tale set against a dark, haunting background, and pulls it off. The story is well-served by its publisher who provided, for the paperback anyway, a lush, dark cover that creates curiosity, and in retrospect, evokes the story nicely.
I read this through in one sitting because I wanted to know what would happen, and because I was lapping up the weird and gorgeous imagery. It’s my fond hope that And What Can We Offer You Tonight finds its way into the hands of people who love works that defy category, and appreciate it for whatever it is.