Saturday, 2 October 2004

Code Noir

Marianne de Pierres
Orbit.
ISBN: 1-84149-257-4)


Following on from the events of 'Nylon Angel', 'Code Noir' sees our punk heroine, Parrish Plessis, become further tangled in the complicated politics of the slum city known as the Tert. After the gang war that led to the deaths of two major crimelords, Parrish finds herself in an unwanted position of power, forced to take control before someone else does. Still wanted for the murder of the media darling Razz Retribution, she needs all the protection she can get but finds that a ganglord's power can go a long way towards improving the lives of the Tert's diseased and drug-addicted inhabitants.

To add to Parrish's troubles, the fanatical aborigine Loyl Daac still seeks to regain control over his tribe's ancestral lands - territory the Tert happens to be slap-bang in the middle of. His attempts to harden his people to the poisoned soil through gene alteration have released the Eskaalim, a parasitic organism long dormant in humanity's DNA. Parrish is infected and the creature is slowly eroding her humanity, feeding on aggression and lust as it twists her genetic coding into something totally alien. Unless she can find a way to stop it her fate is sealed. Like the ganglord Jamon Mondo, whose unnatural aggression caused the war, she will become a monster.

As Parrish struggles to resist the Eskaalim's effects another problem lands straight in her lap. The Cabal Coomera, the sinister sect to whom Parrish owes her life, need her to recover four of their kidnapped shamans. But the mystics are only the first to vanish in what turns out to be the opening shot of a spiritual war that will again shake the Tert to its foundations, sending Parrish on a quest into the darkest heart of the
criminal underworld, the slum town of Dis. As Parrish searches through its bizarre and twisted streets, she will discover the root of a conspiracy that reaches beyond the slums into the pristine opulence of Viva City itself, where the media rule supreme...

Sounds confusing? Trust me, it is. Throughout the novel, Marrianne De Pierres weaves a bewildering array of plot threads together and just as in real life they twist up into a great tangled ball. Threads split and merge, twisting back and forth as revelations come and go. So much is going on at once that it's difficult to grasp just what's happening at any one time. Refreshingly unpredictable, yet not so much that realism is sacrificed, 'Code Noir' delivers fast-paced tension and futuristic cool by the bucket-load.

Written in the first person, 'Code Noir' uses Parrish's perspective to relay the story. Her emotions and knowledge vividly colour the tale and she is often struggling to keep up with the numerous twists and turns, reacting to events as they unfold in a desperate attempt to remain in control of the situation. De Pierre's heroine is an impressive piece of work, fully realised in all her contradictions from the tough-girl fa├žade to her weakness for children and small animals. While none of the novel's other characters are as complex or well-rounded, they still pass as convincing human beings. A great many, however, seem to have been imagined from the more mentally unstable end of the gene-pool, possessing traits ranging from fanaticism to full blown psychosis. Clearly the future is lacking in reliable therapists.

While the first half-dozen chapters are concerned with Parrish's attempts at damage control as she struggles to keep her newly obtained territory and her own skin intact, it is the trek into Dis that takes up the majority of the book and for good reason. Parrish is forever getting side-tracked, running into old acquaintances and obligations that often tie in a little too conveniently to the main plot. Much is made of foreshadowing and while most is good, De Pierres is occasionally a little heavy-handed, inserting give-away clues to later events. The retroactive insertion of one or two details that one would have thought important enough to mention in the first book is a little irritating, but something forgivable.

Less so is the bewildering chaos that begins to set in once Parrish reaches Dis itself and becomes involved in a spiritual conflict between the Cabal and a particularly nasty voodoo shaman. This newly introduced mystical side refuses to mesh well with the cyberpunk setting, instead giving the end of the book a messy, confused feel. Why was there no mention of shamanism's sudden substantiation before? It becomes the central theme of 'Code Noir', but it feels out of place in this high-tech, fancy-free world.

At its best, when dealing with the dark unpleasantries of life in the Tert, 'Code Noir' flounders when it strays into new and fantastic territory. By the finale, things are back on track and the writing is vivacious enough that it is easy to forgive the novel's occasional fault. So I place 'Code Noir' on my 'genre-blurring' shelf and await the third instalment.


This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com