Short Take: I still don’t like sci-fi. But I liked this.
Sometimes, as a reviewer, I am asked to critique things that are outside of my comfort zone. A while back, I gave my opinion on a book of poetry, for example. Or maybe some extra-extreme gore, or some strange new erotica will make its way to my inbox (and no that’s not a euphemism you heathens).
I like to think that I’m game to try just about anything, but for some reason, I’ve never really cozied up to fantasy & sci-fi. I’m pretty sure that I have some unique form of mental laziness, because whenever I’m confronted with any slightly elevated level of world-building, my brain jumps to focus on that detail. What’s this thing? What does it look like? How does it work? And boom, I’ve lost track of things like character names and who’s doing what,.
This in turn leads to frustration as I’m trying to follow and form opinions on a story while ALSO trying to figure out what the heck that science-fictiony-thing is supposed to be or if this particular fantasy-thing will be important to the story later.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that when Mr. Williams contacted me to ask if I’d like to review his new sci-fi mystery novel, I very nearly said “thanks but no thanks”. However, the author had a two major things working to his advantage. #1, I had read and thoroughly enjoyed his “Perishables” (that review is around here somewhere), and #2, the man knows how to flatter a reviewer.
I’ll leave the details of the lovely emails he sent me out of this, but let’s just say that I was sufficiently moved to challenge my sugared-up synapses with A Fall In Autumn, and I’m not a bit sorry that I did.
Roughly 9,000 years in the future, private eye Valerius Bakhoum has just been hired for an entirely different kind of case. Alejandro, a gorgeous and enigmatic golem, believes that he witnessed an atrocity committed by a mythical being. He’s willing to pay top dollar for what’s likely to be a wild goose chase, and Valerius is not in a position to turn down a paying gig.
The search leads to some fascinating, twisty places, both in the literal surroundings, and the more ephemeral intersection of science and belief, all in a city that flies through the air.
Because I don’t read much SFF, I base my opinion on the same things I would for a thriller – how the plot moves, are the characters genuine, and so on. There’s one major difference, however, in that I ask myself “Are the SFF elements necessary, or is it a gimmick?” By that I mean, does the magic or tech actually play a part in the story? Or is it “Ok, I want to do a slasher story, but check it out! This one happens IN OUTER SPACE!! The bad guy kills everyone but like the blood FLOATS AROUND!”
So I’m very happy to say that the world-building in Fall is crucial to the story. Don’t get me wrong, his human touches are perfect. Valerius is complicated and imperfect, scruffy-souled and contradictory, a good-ish guy willing to do bad things. And it’s the people (even the enhanced and hybrid ones) that highlight the author’s keen eye with regard to humanity and our tribalist tendencies. It doesn’t matter how advanced we become, “us vs. them” will always be A Thing.
I genuinely loved the twists and turns in Valerius’s search for the truth, and his vulnerability with Alejandro. In a world where everyone carries literal and/or metaphorical knives, those bits of beauty and vulnerability were all the more moving.
My only wish is that Mr. Williams had slowed down just a bit in the in a few spots. We’re dropped squarely into the middle of an action scene on Autumn, and although the chase itself is fun, I felt slammed with so many ideas at once (Mannie? What’s a Mannie? Mag Cab? Artie? Air-reactive sake? And so on) that my brain refused to just chill out and enjoy what was happening. (What’s a golem, exactly? Like a robot? Why do the differing religions have to both have S-names, I keep mixing them up….)
I felt like I was back in school, and the teacher was saying “Nerd, we went over this a while ago, don’t you remember?” whenever some new term was tossed out without explanation, like I SHOULD understand this, but when I would check the info-cupboard, it was bare. And that is most likely due to my own shortcomings as a reader – SFF books just aren’t always accessible to someone who doesn’t read much SFF.
But when the author took his time, and explained things, DUDE. It was so freaking cool. Like, the tech that keeps the city aloft legit blew me away. And with time, the context clues spread over multiple scenes chiseled away the stumbling blocks and let me just enjoy the story (and let me tell you, my beloved nerdlings, the story is SO GOOD).
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some exotic future booze, because I’m too snowed in to do anything but day-drink today).