Cassandra Rose Clarke’s latest novel, Our Lady of the Ice, explores a unique setting: a domed city perpetually bathed in artificial light and whose inhabitants never see the sun, moon, or stars. Human dramas, both large and small, play out against a crumbling infrastructure and swells of rebellion and terrorism. While not as tightly focused or briskly plotted as I would like, it’s an entertaining and imaginative read, especially for mystery readers who bemoan the lack of female characters in traditional noir.
Hope City, Antarctica. Eliana Gomez is a private investigator who focuses mainly on domestic cases like missing children or unfaithful spouses, advertising that “Discretion is my specialty.” One day, a stunningly gorgeous blonde walks into Eliana’s office with a simple request — recover some missing documents, which Eliana is not to look at under any circumstances. The documents themselves are relatively easy to recover, but taking the case exposes Eliana to conspiracies which affect every citizen of Hope City and, potentially, the entire world. The blonde, Lady Marianella Luna, is an Argentine aristocrat linked to city councilmen, former employees of the Hope City amusement park, and Ignacio Cabrera, who smuggles goods from South America and elsewhere. Cabrera pulls the strings in Hope City, some of which are connected to Eliana’s boyfriend, Diego Amitrano, his bodyguard and occasional thug. Other strings are connected to Sofia, an android who has secretly grown and evolved beyond her programming as a dancer and “comfort girl” for discerning patrons of Hope City’s now-defunct amusement park of the same name.
The popularity of rock groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones place Our Lady of the Ice in the 1960s; there aren’t many fashion-related hints beyond bouffants and cigarette pants, but color televisions are available, and Clarke does mention that the Hope City park opened in the 1890s and closed in the 1940s. I found it interesting that most people in Hope City speak Antarctican Spanish, while mainlanders speak Castilian, which is often regarded as “lisping” or “slushy.” The titular Our Lady of the Ice is a Madonna, dressed in furs and haloed by the sun, who protects supplicants from cold and darkness. Small details like these help to cement the novel in its own time and place, and create a sense of realism alongside steam-powered drones and the evolution of artificial intelligences.
Characters are well-written, with credible motivations and dialogue. Sofia’s unmitigated hatred of humans is as thoroughly explored and understandable as Eliana’s bewilderment in the face of that hatred, Marianella’s need to be perceived as more than a beautiful socialite, and Diego’s conflicting loyalties to the man who saved him from a life on the streets and the woman who offers a promise of something better. Clarke makes the differences between humans and androids clear early on, when Sofia hacks into a city mainframe and downloads some files, a process which is linked to specific senses like taste, sound, and odor. The similarities between the two groups, especially when more is revealed about the changes the robots have been undergoing over time, and as Diego wages an internal rebellion against his own “programming” by Cabrera, blur those dividing lines in thought-provoking ways.
Clarke provides excellent descriptions of the Hope City amusement park, long-shuttered and deep in the throes of decay, overrun with weeds and fugitive robots who hide from city-sponsored “cullings.” Lady Luna’s private dome, Southstar, and the organic grandeur of the agricultural dome are also very clearly portrayed, to the point where I could almost hear the artificially-generated wind and smell the loamy soil. But I would have liked more information about Hope City and its layout, or even the simple number of inhabitants. Are there hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of citizens? Residential areas like Snowy Heights, the smoke stack district, and the park proper are named, but I have no idea where they are in relation to one another. Even in the few instances that a crowd is mentioned, the characters seem alone, so I was frequently left with the impression that Hope City is as empty as its park, as though there are only a half-dozen residents. At one point, a character walks from a location outside the protective main dome to Eliana’s P.I. office without once being noticed. These locations are not adjacent, and this occurred during the daytime. How would no one notice the ice encrusting the character, or their wind-burned and frostbitten skin? How did a half-frozen and extremely famous person avoid drawing any attention from passers-by? It’s possible that Clarke means for this sensation to echo Hope City’s very real isolation within the Antarctican continent, set apart and cut off from the rest of the world both geographically and culturally, but if so, she plays it too close to the vest.
Several characters mention that Hope City’s purpose is to provide atomic energy to the Argentinean mainland, but there’s no mention of how that power is manufactured or exported. I also wanted more information about how the various robots and drones are constructed and powered. Old robots were steam-powered, while modern versions have “atomics,” but I couldn’t tell you what any of that means or how it’s accomplished. Humanoid androids used to be common, but their appearance crossed too far into the uncanny valley, so new robots are spherical or egg-shaped. Androids who worked in the amusement park were programmed to respond to music, which I suspect has something to do with math, but that’s glossed over in favor of exploring Sofia’s visceral revulsion to that music and its overwhelming effects on her. Some robots have clockwork gears and pipes, some fly, and some roll; there’s a mish-mash of technologies, and I had trouble sorting it all out without being provided more thorough details. Clarke’s strengths as an author clearly lie in her abilities to relay sensory experiences, her accurate portrayal of emotions, and the philosophical quandaries surrounding self-identification and -determination. Our Lady of the Ice is written toward the reader who asks why an artificial construct would want to be its own master, and less for the reader wondering what materials are used to construct an android’s “skin” or power core.
Ultimately, Clarke’s focus on the motivations and inner lives of her characters leaves much of the outer world seemingly empty, and while the novel raises many questions regarding the value of humanity, it provides too few satisfactory answers. This was an entertaining and multi-layered mystery, but while Our Lady of the Ice has fascinating tech noir elements, it was neither “tech” nor “noir” enough to feel complete to me.