Carrie Patel’s The Buried Life is one of those amiable novels that you keep reading because, well, you picked it up, and if this bit here feels a bit clunky, and that bit there even more so, and sure, that’s a little implausible, and yes, wouldn’t it be nice if the prose were livelier, the world richer, but it’s, you know, nice enough, and maybe it’ll get better than nice — sharper, or edgier, or “grabbier” — but no, it stays nice all the way through. And there of course isn’t anything wrong with nice. Nice is good. Nice is nice. But it’s hard to get excited about nice.
The setting is post-unknown-cataclysm, a long time post, when most folks reside in large underground cities. The surface world is still there, and looking pretty good actually (this is no Wool, no The Road) — farmers farm there, communes commune there, and everyday people use surface entryways called “verandas,” but mostly people have grown to like their very nice, well-lit underground habitations. More specifically, the setting is the city of Recoletta, ruled by an oligarchy of Councilors in charge of various bureaucracies and Directorates. It’s a strictly controlled society in terms of knowledge, with much of history wholly forbidden, while other texts/creative arts are carefully monitored/censored.
If the setting is post-cataclysm, the plot is more police procedural, as the novel opens with a murder, one of several committed throughout The Buried Life, each one reaching up the social classes, beginning with a historian and ending with one of the most powerful figures in the city. Tasked with solving the rash of murders is Inspector Malone, along with her new — young, of course — partner. Malone shares the spotlight with Jane Lin, a laundress to the well-heeled who somehow gets caught up in things, especially when Malone turns to her after Those in Power start to constrain the investigation. It soon becomes evident that there is much more than a simple murder spree going on.
To start with the positives, Patel does an excellent job with the character of Malone, capturing pretty near perfectly that hard-bitten, pragmatic, soldier-of-justice tone. If pairing her with a callow new partner is somewhat formulaic, it doesn’t make the relationship any less effective or enjoyable. Sundar is not a fully dimensional character, but he is enjoyable to spend time with, and he adds a needed touch of levity and lightness in many places. The prose is smooth and easy, the pacing never bogs down, and these two facets combined with mostly likable and engaging characters make for a quick, pleasant, effortless read.
The issues are not deal breaking, but they do detract. Jane, while it’s impossible to not root for her, was less successful as a character, mostly because she was a little too predictable (if this makes sense, what was predictable was how she would be “unpredictable” — she’s that spunky character everyone assumes won’t be adventurous but turns out to be), as well as a little too naïve. Side characters beyond the big three are just a little flat, and one “person of interest” (in this case, both suspicion-interest and romantic-interest) falls short of the mysterious figure he apparently is meant to cut.
If the prose is easy to follow, it won’t ever wow you, and there are several lengthy and clunky expository segments. The clunkiness surfaces as well at various plot points, coincidences, conveniently overheard conversations, and such; and with some abrupt character shifts or seemingly contradictory actions. For instance, Jane makes much of her discretion, but shortly thereafter gives up just about all with regard to clients, and in one scene at a high-class gala, it appeared (and maybe I missed something here) that everyone had forgotten they weren’t supposed to know Jane’s lower class nature. For a 300-page novel, there were a number of these sort of head-scratching moments.
Finally, the world just never came alive for me. It felt very two-dimensional, just sort of sketched in. Part of that was lack of description, part lack of day-to-day detail, and part of it linguistic, as when some words just felt too everyday similar, like “tuxedo” and “deviled eggs.” For something taking place so long after our own world, I needed more of a sense of difference in more varied and detailed ways.
As mentioned, these weren’t deal-breakers, but they were a bit too frequently noticeable and certainly detracted from my reading pleasure. I’m not sure if this is Patel’s debut work, but it has that feel of a first book by an author still nailing down the craft. The Buried Life isn’t a bad start (it’s, you know, a nice one), but it does have those starter-novel flaws.
Recoletta — (2014-2017) Publisher: The gaslight and shadows of the underground city of Recoletta hide secrets and lies. When Inspector Liesl Malone investigates the murder of a renowned historian, she finds herself stonewalled by the all-powerful Directorate of Preservation – Recoletta’s top-secret historical research facility. When a second high-profile murder threatens the very fabric of city society, Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar must tread carefully, lest they fall victim to not only the criminals they seek, but the government which purports to protect them. Knowledge is power, and power must be preserved at all costs.