Far From the Light of Heaven
By Tade Thompson
I received an ARC of Far From the Light of Heaven from Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review.
This is a tricky book to review. Far From the Light of Heaven is a sci-fi thriller dressed up as a sci-fi mystery (the short, sharp chapters will keep you turning pages); the sparse writing style is distinctly flavorless, almost artificial (but in a good way?); there are (arguably) sprinklings of the supernatural; and it ends on a murky, discordant note that left me dissatisfied and yet pleasantly discomforted. I can’t stop thinking about it because I can’t quite figure it out, and I don’t think I ever will, and I don’t want to. Far From the Light of Heaven is like a half-healed wound.
Michelle “Shell” Campion is overtrained and overqualified as first mate of the colony ship Ragtime—it is her first time in the field, so to speak, although the ship itself is controlled by an AI. But when Ragtime arrives at its destination, Michelle wakes and discovers that thirty-one of the one thousand sleeping passengers are missing, and the AI has been stripped of its higher functions. The investigation soon involves detective Rasheed Fin and his artificial companion Salvo, Michelle’s uncle Lawrence Biz, and Lawrence’s half-alien daughter Joké.
I was glad to know going in to Far From the Light of Heaven (from reading other reviews) that it was not a mystery, in the sense that it does not give you enough information to figure out what is happening before the book itself provides those answers. This is a thriller; Thompson is more interested in propelling you along from one page to the next than in creating a puzzle for you to solve. This was not a problem for me, but I can imagine some readers being frustrated that Far From the Light of Heaven is not the genre they thought it was, so I do encourage you to approach this reading experience with appropriate expectations. Don’t try to solve it. Enjoy the ride.
That said, I was enraptured from beginning to end. The plot kicks in quickly and every twist tantalizingly promises another dose of the unexpected in the next chapter—and let me tell you, this book goes places. It gets weirder and weirder and weirder, but it never becomes unsatisfying or fractures its own internal logic. Thompson cracks open the door to a vast and unknowable world; I imagine pressing my face to that sliver of light, eager to see what lies beyond, my thoughts running wild with possibilities. But I do not want the door opened any farther, because the thrill of not knowing offers a unique pleasure unmatched by passing over the threshold.
The sparse cast of characters is distinct and evocative. Far From the Light of Heaven is a book which neither demands nor delivers a great deal of depth when it comes to its characters, but Michelle, Rasheed, Salvo, Lawrence, and Joké are sharply sketched and go through simple but satisfying arcs. Campion’s untested competence and Fin’s world weariness create a winning dynamic, with Michelle’s uncle Larry providing warmth and Salvo humor amidst the high-wire tension of the Ragtime mystery. Joké is a wild card, her non-human heritage infusing the book with an alien biology and culture and a delicious air of “anything-can-happen.”
The two aspects of the book which I suspect will be most divisive are its writing style and its ending. There is an artificial quality to Thompson’s prose here, a sort of plainness which would typically make me recoil, but he makes it work—the simplicity of the style makes moments of dry humor pop off the page, and it effectively captures the life-or-death stakes of the story and the workmanlike attitude of the characters. Given my preference for prose with just a bit of stylistic flavor, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading Far From the Light of Heaven.
The ending is abrupt and a bit awkward, but it too works (or at least it did for me)—I found myself not clamoring for a sequel, even though I would like to see more of this world and these characters, but rather reflecting on how on life rarely exhibits the clarity and the cleanliness of narrative fiction. This is why I compared Far From the Light of Heaven to a half-healed wound: it leaves its characters in a world whose conflict has spiraled beyond the scope of their control, abandoning them in the nebulous space of trauma which is receding into the distance but remains unresolved. An ending like this may not be to your taste, but it keeps echoing in my brain like an unexpected note in a piece of music. I can’t stop thinking about Far From the Light of Heaven.
Review by Erin Larson