After reading all of Wormwood last year, Tade Thompson became one of my to-watch authors because of his genre melding stories. While I haven’t made time to dive into his horror novella series Molly Southbourne, Thompson did decide to grace readers this year with a rollicking science fiction mystery, Far From The Light of Heaven.
Decades into Humanity’s future, a form of near lightspeed travel has been developed, allowing colonies to be established in other star systems. Michelle Campion is the first mate of the Ragtime, a ship piloted by an advanced AI set to deliver 1000 souls to the Lagos system. However, upon waking, Campion is assaulted by warning signals letting her know that several of the passengers will not complete their journey. As an act of precaution she quarantines the ship to investigate the problems at hand. Meanwhile, investigator Rasheed Fin is sent in by the powers in the Lagos system to solve the murders. He’s coming off probation and hoping to use his skills to do what he feels born to do, track aliens on the colony planet Bloodroot. However, as the mystery deepens, and Ragtime becomes a physics based time bomb, the answers that are found may have serious implications for not only those on board, but the Lagos system and maybe even Earth itself.
One of my favorite things about Thompson’s stories, which holds true here, is his willingness to get weird and gross. He has an ability to tap into the human psyche and find ways to remind the reader that we are just bags of meat and bone despite our high minded natures. There is a material world which restrains the imagination’s ability to transcend reality. Thompson is great at exploring how this material world gets weirder the more we learn about it, breaking humanity’s ability to separate itself from the laws that govern it. Thompson’s body horror maximizes its viscerality while maintaining a minimal approach. He works your imagination, not describing every detail, but by giving the larger contours. He makes the reader think about mortality, and how once one is dead, you are just matter to be exploited.
The characters are fun and quirky too, offering a range of personalities that mesh and clash in entertaining ways. If you’re familiar with sci-fi – horror tropes a lot of the characters will be recognizable but Thompson adds his own flair here and there to keep things fresh. They each showcase inadequacies, strengths, and fears in proper measure. Thompson takes his time revealing backgrounds and motivations, but each reveal feels earned, defining their actions in hindsight while foreshadowing the future.
The book’s main focus is the mystery itself with a smattering of political maneuvers on the outskirts. It gives the Ragtime a lot of weight, pulling the tension tight as the story unravels. Thompson bypasses my usual problems with locked room mysteries by including these side stories that revolve around the murders on Ragtime. He adds consequences beyond the central cast dying or solving the mystery. Every unveiling, every ticking of the clock forces worlds to react, and prepare for the eventual failure of the Ragtime. The main story is a bottle mystery, with outsiders trying to react to the little information that they receive. The side reactions rarely feel like interruptions within the every tightening main plot. Thompson pulls it off with flair, making it look easy and feel seamless.
Lastly, I just want to mention that Thompson spends time exploring a lot of fun, weird, and sometimes serious ideas. I know I generally try to avoid talking about them in a nebulous way, but to dig into some of them too much would tiptoe the line into spoiler territory. From space travel and afrofuturism to AI control and failure, Thompson packs a lot of entertaining meditations on genre conventions. He takes them seriously, while also playing them out to incredible degrees within a single short book.
Whether this becomes an introduction to a larger world, or remains a stand-alone story, Far From The Light of Heaven is an incredibly welcome addition to the genre.
Rating: Far From the Light of Heaven – 9.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.