When I sat down to read The Prefect, I thought I was reading a sci-fi mystery along the lines perhaps of Leviathan Wakes. Then I thought I was perhaps reading The Last Policeman set in space: the dogged detective solving a crime no one cares about or needs solved. T-urns out it was a sprawling space opera, and that just isn’t what I expected at all. So a certain recalibration was necessary.
Though billed as a stand-alone novel, I couldn’t help but feel like I was starting with Season Two of a series. Tom Dreyfus is a prefect, which is a sort of policeman for the democracies of The Glitter Band, a loose organization of over ten thousand habitats that nominally support the idea of democracy. Dreyfus is sent to investigate the destruction of a habitat and the murder of the nine-hundred-plus people who lived inside it. It appears it may be the work of an Ultra ship that was visiting prior to the destruction, which has enormous political implications, but Dreyfus has the feeling there is more to it than that. As part of his fact-finding, he arranges a delicate diplomatic meeting with the Ultras. He also interviews a couple of the recorded personalities of the habitat residents, known as ‘betas.’ Apparently the personhood of these holographic recorded personalities is somewhat questionable, particularly since a failed experiment with the trying to fully upload people into an ‘Alpha.’ Still with me?
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Dreyfus’ lieutenant Thalia needs to fix a computer bug that is affecting the servers that maintain the democracy of each habitat. Oh, and Dreyfus’ other lieutenant is a ‘hyperpig,’ which may be some sort of genetic thing or racial thing, I couldn’t tell, but apparently there’s a lot of prejudice there.
That’s the rough premise, so you can see where it requires attention. I can see it being one of those books that only appeal to genre readers, unlike Leviathan Wakes, which pulled in even non-genre fans. One mistake is that The Prefect follows a third-person narrative, switching points of view as needed, including that of someone who has an oppositional agenda to Dreyfus’ team. There’s a two-fold result: one, it spoils the suspense of the mystery early on; instead of discovering along with the detective, the reader is waiting for Dreyfus to catch up. My book notes show that it was only (mild spoiler) a little over half-way when this gestalts, so the remainder of the book clearly isn’t about the initial mystery.
Two, the narrative switches make it more of a challenge to identify and develop a particular character. I’m not sure I ever learned much about Thalia, except she’s driven to overcome the ostracizing of her prefect father. Likewise, Dreyfus is haunted by a particular incident from eight or ten years ago, but not precisely what it was. Beyond that, his history is a mystery.
Reynolds also gets a bit carried away with creativity and gives an overview of a number of worlds in the Glitter Band, including the Prefect base, the decimated habitat, and the four different habitats Thalia is visiting. None of it is germane, and all of it contributes to the feeling of Season Two. You know; it helps to launch the starship before you go to all the different worlds.
The final challenge is that a number of issues dovetail together in the last bit of the book. It was a genius ending, but really needed the build earlier to make it truly impactful. I feel like Reynolds couldn’t make up his mind if he wanted to tell the small story (Dreyfus’ story) in context of a dramatic backdrop (much like Last Policeman), or a large story from the viewpoint of various agents.
That said, it is a great story. The writing is sophisticated and avoids spoon-feeding the reader. The pace feels solid, particularly as it shifts to space-opera. It’s an intriguing, sophisticated universe. The philosophical issues raised, both purposefully and as asides, are tantalizing, if somewhat underdeveloped.
Overall, it felt like a good book that could have been great.
Many thanks for Mimi and Milda for motivating me to read it!