Rose/House – Girder Sized Thorns

This novella slaps, and I can’t talk about it until everyone reads it, so go read it. Do you know what I need more of? Science fiction architecture stories. There feels like there is a real untapped potential here. I want to see buildings brimming with strange technology. I want to see how the people of tomorrow are going to live their daily lives. Show me what would happen if Frank Lloyd Wright went insane and built a superhouse with a terrifying AI… is the premise of Rose/House by Arkady Martine.

Basit Deniau built the most desirable houses in the world, and all of them are haunted. His houses are embedded with artificial intelligence to be every inch of the domicile. Every tile, every nail, every bolt, and every blade of grass on the lawn is known, monitored, and controlled by a powerful localized AI. No one knows how Deniau did it, but every architecture firm on the planet would kill to find out. Too bad the passage of time beat them to it. Deniau’s been dead a year, and Rose House (his greatest achievement) is locked up tight, as commanded by the architect’s will. This house made of glass and crystal sits in the center of a desert, a monument to the hubris of men and their will to build where they are not meant to. In the basement of Rose House sits all of Deniau’s files and sketches, an archive of treasures. Atop this hoard of knowledge the AI of Rose House sits, like a cyberdragon, letting no one in – with one exception.

Dr. Selene Gisil, Deniau’s former protégé, is permitted to come into Rose House once a year. She alone may open Rose House’s vaults, look at drawings and art, and talk with Rose House’s animating intelligence. But, the AI one day reports the presence of a dead body in the house to the nearest law enforcement. Detective Maritza Smith has been handed an impossible case, and calls the only possible suspect, Gisil, and asks her to come in. Together, Gisil and Smith head out to the Rose House to pull this puzzle apart one wall at a time.

This little locked room mystery is a blast. Martine really nails the atmospheric dread of this setting, making the AI of Rose/House unbelievably creepy and disturbing. On top of that, the characters are classic detective story headliners. The cop who doesn’t stop working on a case even when her paycheck and workload demands it. The wary partner who thinks there is better shit to do than enter a literal haunted house. The one person, Dr. Gisil, clearly connected to the case who wants nothing to do with it, but can’t seem to get away. And then there is Rose/House itself, the omniscient AI presence that dominates the space, following specific logic branches, and giving up nothing in the way of clues. It feels like what would happen if you injected a sphinx with computer code creating a cyberpunk guardian. There is a very cool experiment with localized omnipotence and omnipresence in this novella. I loved the idea of a tiny god whose domain was two floors of a two thousand square foot home. It added to the claustrophobia while making the house feel like an endless labyrinth that characters could disappear into.

Rose/House feels purposefully designed to fuck with the reader. The easiest way to explain Martine’s approach to the murder mystery is “just the facts ma’am,” but weaponized to the nth degree. Having read her previous novels, I was prepared for a flurry of disconnected information and events that eventually exploded in perfect harmony to dazzling fanfare. Instead, Martine seems hell bent on making that virtually impossible within Rose/House, to great effect. The writing is clinical, purposeful, and devoid of emotion.. Its tension is found between the lines. The reader is forced to constantly question what is being presented to them, and fill in the blanks where only shadows may exist. The approach is not an anathema to the genre, but instead invites the reader directly to ponder the true nature of the mystery at hand, one the author doesn’t have a full answer to.

I found myself compelled more by Martine’s laser-like focus on the dissection of language. Already strong within her Teixcalaan novels, Rose/House felt like it was mainlining this theme through an intravenous feed turned to eleven. Every interaction has at least two different meanings. Interfacing with the house itself was a lesson in translation, one that plays with the concept of “what is human?” It’s not just your standard “human nature” vs “artificial intelligence.” It runs deeper, questioning how language develops categories of separation, and how that separation carries internal logics that must be learned, tested and taught in vicious feedback loops. The novella then goes on to showcase how these loops create the concept of human and “inhuman,” in ways both exciting and deeply terrifying. So when the final reveal of everything that happened within the house makes its way to your eyes, you can’t help but feel a little robbed, because there is still work to do.

Weeks after finishing, I am still not sure what I think other than the surety that I enjoyed the journey. With great novellas always a difficulty to come by, it was fabulous to start the year with such a strong showing. Rose/House has a presence that can’t be ignored, its mystery inviting you into its cold maw. It wants you to read it, you had better comply.

Rating: Rose/House – 9.0/10

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.

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