At thirty, Valerius Bakhoum isn’t exactly old per se, but his status as an Artisanal Human means he is legally barred from even the most basic of modern medical technology. In fact, if he hadn’t run away from home as a youth, he would still be living a life fetishized by all manner of Human Plus breeds and the two main religions, Spiralist and Sincerity. Despite this bizarre juxtaposition, Valerius managed to hustle his way off the streets and into a job as a detective, hunting down wayward lovers for paying clientele all throughout the floating citadel of a city, Autumn. It isn’t glamorous and a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer starts to wear him out—but he is a free man, albeit an “artisanal” one. When a golem named Alejandro walks through his door, Valerius isn’t about to turn down a case that could help him make rent.
Not only is Alejandro unlike any of Valerius’ previous clients, the case Alejandro brings is equally as unique: he wants Valerius to find out why an angel felled the only other floating city to survive in the modern era. Valerius never believed in angels and never thought much about why the other city dropped out of the sky. What starts as a lark, a way for Valerius to make a little cash, quickly turns into a much deeper puzzle and even outright conspiracy. The mission Alejandro brings sends Valerius zigging and zagging across Autumn and employing all the tricks he’s developed as a detective. What Valerius discovers shatters his image of reality and proves that sometimes, conspiracy theories are actually true.
As you can probably tell from the blurb, this is a futuristic dystopian suspense novel. The world building in this story is absolutely gorgeous. The action takes place some nine millennia from our present day. Williams does a stellar job at constantly building and, perhaps more importantly, reinforcing the social norms with which Valerius lives. The social caste system is a great example; most humans are genetically modified and/or can be modified at any time. There are simple enhancements, like increased strength or improved physical appearance, and there are modifications to cure all manner of diseases. Valerius cannot have any of this because of his status, which makes him not a slave, but rather corralled into a special area of the flying city like a “backup” in case anything goes wrong with all the modified humans. Apart from just being an interesting take on how society might reorganize itself when genetic technology becomes commonplace, Valerius’ caste becomes a significant driving force for him during the last several chapters.
Valerius is our narrator for this story. It’s told in first person perspective and Williams “book ends” the prose to make it clear this is a written account by Valerius of Valerius’ life upon meeting Alejandro. That said, I quite forgot this was supposed to be a written account when we get into the thick of the story. In retrospect, however, this epistolary style can account for how and why Valerius is able to provide such rich descriptions, even when there is a lot of action happening on page. Of course, this also means we get best acquainted with Valerius and, as a character, I found him a mix of jaded, clever, and genuine. He’s no saint, though, and he’s not telling the reader how he met his one true love. That said, it’s clear that he has genuine, if unfathomable, affection for Alejandro, even if he never really stops reminding himself that Alejandro’s a golem (which, for all intents and purposes, seems to be like cybernetic human). But Valerius grew up on the mean streets of Autumn and did what he had to in order to survive off the artisinal human reservation: selling sex. This is a trick he employs from time to time in the book, and Valerius makes a special, *human* connection with a gang member named Fiono.
The supporting cast is significant, but there are only a handful of recurring characters: Alejandro, who is something of a love interest; Solim, a recent acquaintance who provides Valerius with insider information regarding the Church of Sincerity; and Blackie, a human-cat crossover who runs Valerius’ go-to bar. Ultimately, these interactions boil down to Valerius investigating the existence (or lack thereof) of angels for Alejandro and following tips from Solim. The story unfolds between three points: Valerius getting information from Alejandro’s vast memory and trying to verify what Alejandro believes to be true; Valerius getting snippets of information from Solim and trying to track down the relevant people to the whole story; and Valerius just going about being a detective.
As much as I loved the characters and the world, there are some “holes” in the story telling. Some of the most exciting developments center on what, exactly, a golem even is. Alejandro eventually trusts Valerius enough to tell him his “creation story,” and after all that Valerius sees and experiences, I was expecting Valerius to unequivocally accept Alejandro’s explanation. Yet this point felt unresolved to me. In fact, the matter of the second to last flying city (the one that Alejandro says was attacked by an angel) was also left as rather a question mark. However odd it seems to me that these two points seem unresolved, I also cannot say that not knowing the outcome changes how much I enjoyed the journey. There’s also the quasi-open end that informs the reader in no uncertain terms that cancer will not stop Valerius.
Overall, I would say this book scratched a huge itch for me: to read a sophisticated story featuring interesting characters that are not defined or driven by romantic attraction. Just to reiterate, the book is not entirely devoid of sexual relationships, but they are certainly not the focus of the story and none of them develop into anything resembling love. Personally, it was refreshing to see such a lovingly crafted story that features gay characters without reducing them to their orientations. This is an excellent story that stands on its own merits and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys dystopian themes, religious themes (mostly critical), suspense stories, or just well written books.