Liquid Crystal Nightingale by Eeleen Lee
Rebellion, pb, £7.37
Review by Ian Green
Dark figures gathering corpses from canals; candles lit outside miners’ homes; children turned into tools for the benefit of unfettered corporate greed. These are just a few of the myriad elements that mix in Eeleen Lee’s debut science-fiction novel Liquid Crystal Nightingale. The novel is a twisting tale that mixes a setting befitting a space opera with a structure more akin to a classic thriller. We follow Pleo, a young woman trying to escape the world of Chatoyance. Chatoyance is a mining colony in the Kuiper belt, and Pleo is part of a mining family. The corporations who run the colony care little for the miners. Forced to accept brutal physical augmentations that make her a valuable tool for the mining corporations, Pleo studies at the Polytechnikal. Pleo’s sister Cerussa has died, one of a string of suicides amongst the augmented youths, but even as Pleo struggles to break free of the oppressive structures around her she is drawn deeper into the political machinations of the mining industry Tiers, and unjustly accused of murder.
What follows is a complex and high-paced thriller, where we follow not only Pleo, but also Marsh, exiled from another colony for mysterious reasons, and Investigator Dumortier, who is seeking what little justice he can hope to find in the corrupt world of Chatoyance. The novel uses flashbacks with an occasionally startling pace, subverting your understanding of situations as you move forward- it can be difficult to follow with even a moment of inattentiveness, but is well worth the effort of focus.
The real star of this book is the setting. Chatoyance is a deeply imagined world. Lee’s prose is full of mineral allusions and references to geology and gemmology, and all of this in a settlement riddled with canals and obscure structures. It can be hard to visualise such a complex setting, but when moments of calm enter the frenetic movement the world-building starts to pay off. One element that is lovingly rendered is the inclusion of folklore, for example in the funeral rites of the miners, or the reverence given to the Charons, strange figures that haunt the canals- this kind of folklore is often overlooked in science-fiction that seems to think humanity would leave behind these tendencies as we reach to the stars, but the inclusion of these elements makes the society feel all the more believable. This also leads into the introduction of some more new-age concepts such as tulpas (forms given physical weight by consciousness) that are gently introduced with as much sincerity as the biotech, folklore, geology, and
Another element is the fascinating biotech on display in chatoyance, ranging from new-readouts printed on moth-wing paper on the public transport system to organic lethal fans that bond with the user and form an integral part of fla-tessen, a martial art that mixes elements of dance, biotech, and brutality.
In amongst the tale of political intrigue and corporate malfeasance is an undercurrent of worry- a long forgotten alien enemy, the Artisans, are rumoured to have resurfaced. These larger background concepts and stories do not undermine the central plot, but rather help to build the world of Chatoyance as alive and vibrant.
Liquid Crystal Nightingale is an ambitious and complex debut. Whilst its pacing and dense world-building may deter the casual reader, they will reward perseverance with a deeply realised world and an utterly unique tone.