Recommended for Vonnegut fans, Powers fans
★ ★ ★ 1/2
“A quantity of blood is spilled in this story, I’m sorry to say; and a good many people die; and there is some politics too. There is danger and fear. Accordingly I have told his tale in the form of a murder mystery; or to be more precise (and at all costs we must be precise) three, connected murder mysteries.
But I intend to play fair with you, reader, right from the start, or I’m no true Watson. So let me tell everything now, at the beginning, before the story gets going.”
Such a promising beginning; a sly narration, word play, and enticing hints. A troublesome book; very well written, cold and only intellectually interesting characters, dysconjugate plotting, and rather engaging world-building. The result is a book that is clearly well-done but doesn’t ever reach that point of emotional resonance or engagement.
After the prologue by the aforementioned sly narrator, the first section/story, “In the Box,” is about seven men placed on an asteroid as part of their prison sentence. It will be eleven years before the ship returns, so until then, survival is up to them. A fascinating, brutal and uncomfortable character study as the seven men engage in the adult version of Lord of the Flies. The reader knowing that a murder will take place lends an interesting tension to the already violent group dynamics; I was poised on the edge of a reading seat wondering how and when it would happen. Oh, and the ending! A clever, disgusting, squeamish solution.
Onward then, to the next section, titled, “The FTL Murders.” In this section, we are treated to the structure of the 1920s detective novel, with a list of Dramatis Personae. Lead narrator is Diana Argent, an amazingly privileged and gifted young woman with an equally gifted twin sister, Eva. When visiting a world for “a spell of gravity,” someone is found dead. Appointing Iago, her manservant, as Dr. Watson, she regards it as her own personal mystery to solve for her sixteenth birthday. Eva is less interested pursing mysteries, preoccupied with solving an astrophysics puzzle for her thesis. This time, the murder occurs quickly; it is the notorious Jack who is missing from the story. While it was entertaining, it felt more frivolous than the first story, with many accessory characters lending confusion. The FTL, or faster-than-light engine, is introduced and begins to overwhelm the murder mystery. There’s a side emo conflict about unattainable love. At the risk of spoilers, I’ll desist, but suffice it to say, the mystery was alright, I failed to be surprised at Jack’s appearance, and I was thoroughly muddled by the devolution into FTL exploration.
The last section was “The Impossible Gun,” which sort of tied the sections together with a great deal of interplanetary politics (rounding out their beginning in the FTL story), coupled with another murder. More interesting in the general world-building, I had rather burned out on the characters by then.
Roberts’ use of language is frequently wonderful in both expression and concept:
“He’d sat there strapped in his seat…but actually he was hurrying towards his own death. Down to his last few breaths of air. His last hours alive. But he didn’t know!
None of us will know, of course. The weird grammar of death. You die, he or she dies, they die but there is no genuine form for ‘I.’ Not really. All know that, none know when.”
It was partially his skill at language that kept me reading, more than any great fascination with the overarching narrative. No doubt there is lots of Meaning here about humanity, potential, goodness, motive–as well as brutality, rape, and callous disregard of life. But despite enjoying the mysteries, appreciating the writing skill, I found the larger motifs passed me by, and I felt a little like I had closed one of Satre’s stories when I finished. Or quite possible, Vonnegut, but as its been about two decades since I last read him, please don’t take that comparison as fact.
Quite honestly, Jack Glass works rather better if one considers them serial shorts rather than part of a loosely woven coherent tale. But, oh, what a beautiful cover–a stained glass print, bright, cheerful… and deceptive.