Simon R. Green,
Nightingale's Lament
(Ace, 2004)

Nightingale's Lament opens with a bang, as the power station supplying over a tenth of the city's energy self destructs. John Taylor, the city's most famous detective, just happens to be there at the time -- that's his story and he's sticking to it. Taking on a case involving a singer and her possibly abusive agents hardly seems likely to cause more trouble for him. Armed with condiments, a bad reputation and a certain gift for finding things, he's off into the surprisingly dangerous realm of show business, lying in the heart of the always ominous Nightside.

The star of the show is Nightside itself, a rich, mysterious halfworld free of the usual fantasy trappings and rich with fresh deities, monsters and strange almost-people. Merely human characters are hard pressed to compete for center stage. For the most part they don't, serving mainly as hint depots and plot points. Even the most spontaneous characters have a tendency to speak in introspective, hint-laden half-soliloquies, and Taylor's internal narration is flavored with enough historical data and town boosting to sound a bit like a tour guide. That, combined with the singleminded focus of Taylor's character on his accepted mission, gave me the recurring feeling of being in a role-playing game, where every encounter is engineered and detailed description is necessary for any informed action. Such is the intriguing nature of Nightside that I didn't care one bit, and only resented Taylor's job focus when it kept me from exploring some of the intriguing but irrelevant corners that occasionally intrude on the scene. Hardly a scene passes without some intriguing figure being glimpsed from the corner of the story. The Fractured Protagonist, a single-souled temporal triplet and thousands of others beg for a closer look, usually denied by the pressing demands of solving Nightingale's mystery. When one of those more than human characters, like Dead Boy or Julian Advent, does warrant more of Taylor's attention, they live up fully to the mysterious promise of their names.

Not that the essential mystery is dull or easily unraveled. A simple case of dirty business soon reveals tantalizing hints of something much more, and the final answer to the case carries a bigger bang than the lost power plant. Fantasy-based mysteries get to cheat a bit, with their introduction of possibilities the reader can't guess at based on real-world knowledge. The trick is to make those options feel earned, a clever criminal MO instead of a lazy writer's escape, and there Green succeeds. The solution to the mystery would be hard for even a series fan to guess, but the encounters throughout the book provide at least thematic justification, while not spelling out the possibility directly.

It's not giving away too much to reveal that Taylor does survive this case -- Nightingale's Lament is part of a series, after all. And that's all to the good. He is currently the only ticket into Nightside, and it's a fine place to visit.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 24 July 2004

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