For whatever reason, I love books about alien linguistics. Not necessarily first contact, but more in terms of the pitfalls and cultural quirks of learning an alien language and then interacting with those aliens, so when I saw that this book featured a linguist I jumped on it. The quote on the book calls it “weird” and well, yes, this is definitely a quirky mix of science fiction wrapped up in a murder mystery.
“Now everyone will think she can’t cope with the demands of her job, just because she fell off a balcony.”
In a future New York City wracked by climate change, the alien Logi have made contact and settled in to a life exploring Earth’s cultural peculiarities. Lydia serves as the interpreter to Fitzwilliam, the Logi cultural attaché, which mainly involves accompanying him to various plays, galas, and lectures. Unlike humans, they have only one language, Logisi, and communicate telepathically. Only certain humans, like Lydia, are capable of communicating with them. The problem, though, is that communicating with them results in a state that greatly resembles drunknenness. After one particularly bad night, she wakes to find her boss dead in his study. Suspicion immediately falls on her as the only other person in the house, especially as the effects of translating the previous night mean she can’t remember anything that happened. Determined to clear her name, Lydia begins investigating the murder, with the help of some very unexpected sources.
The book is told from Lydia’s third-person present tense point of view. At the start of the book, after a gaffe due to too much translating, Lydia is demoralized and thinking of quitting her job. She’s an awkward person, generally, and despite living in NYC for almost a year, she hasn’t made any friends. Lydia is, on the surface, one of the worst people you could chose to investigate a murder. After all, the police are certainly better equipped to figure out what happened, and Lydia already feels that she’s not quite filling her predecessor’s footsteps. But when it becomes clear that she’s their prime suspect, she has to do something to figure out who really killed Fitz.
“But if she was at this party on her own, she’d be out of her depth, wouldn’t she? She doesn’t know how to talk to these people, she doesn’t come from their world—even if she used social cribnotes she’d be struggling to keep up. At least with Fitz around all she has to do is say his words and people listen to her and she belongs here, more or less.”
This is one of those books where you can’t talk about most of the plot without running into massive spoilers, so let’s start with the world-building instead. It’s a mildly dystopian future of our world, one that’s still recognizable despite climate change, eroded privacy, and, well, aliens. How it differs is revealed slowly to the reader, along with the steps of Lydia’s investigation. The murder mystery investigation is the main plot, though it’s a slow-paced and somewhat meandering one. A lot of the fun of the book is in the (mostly shady) characters Lydia interacts with, as well as the humor. The humor’s very British, subtle but there throughout the book, which makes sense as Lydia grew up in Halifax, England. Lydia grew up poor, and she’s well aware of the differences between her and the rarefied society she interacts with daily, often to hilarious effect.
To talk about themes very vaguely, the book plays a lot with the concept communication. Obviously, given Lydia’s job, translation is a huge theme, the power translators have in how they chose to translate something – or whether they chose to translate it at all. While Lydia is often completely ignored by people seeking to talk to Fitz, she’s also the only way they can communicate with him. The Logi don’t understand oral speech at all or basically anything digital (their tech is based on organics), so without their human translators they’re basically lost. There’s a particular tangent about how the arrival of the Logi reinvigorated the physical book printing industry, as sometimes human books will be translated into their written language. The Logi are the ones with the power to make a play or a book a hit, though no one knows that it’s actually Lydia reading all the books and then recommending ones to Fitz. The concept of communication and viewpoints are important in how humans communicate with each other, too. It’s Lydia’s inability to use VR environments (how most people socialize) that makes it so hard for her to make friends, but it’s also probably the reason she’s compatible with the Logi’s telepathy. The digital content Lydia sees – and therefore how her worldview is shaped – is assigned a “truthiness” rating by an AI based on various criteria like the author’s field of expertise, and she can disallow articles below a certain threshold.
As far as cons, while I enjoyed the journey, the mystery was almost too circuitous (and at times, too coincidental) for me. And while I was in general satisfied with the way it was wrapped up, the ending felt unfinished. I think I wanted a bit more than what we got about Lydia’s future after the mystery was solved.
Overall, though, this was a very enjoyable light scifi murder mystery, perfect beach reading!
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.