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Book Review: Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory

There was a girl who lived on the streets in a northern city. She was sixteen years old when she found God, and had just turned seventeen when God abandoned her. — Daryl Gregory, Afterparty

Daryl Gregory’s a new author to me; I sought out this book after reading his interview in Locus, where he explained the difference between fantasy and science fiction in a way that made sense to this mixed-genre household (basically saying that science fiction is the genre where the characters seek out explanations for inexplicable things). After reading Afterparty, I think I might go in search of his other books, of which I believe there are three. It’s a solid story that combines elements of several other things I’ve read recently and does them more than competently.

The setting is near-future North America, and the dystopic flavor of the week is designer drugs: basically, the 3D printer industry joined forces with the home meth lab and now people are brewing up psychotropic drugs in their basements. Our main character is Lyda Rose (yes, the reference is intentional ;)),  a 40-something widow and chemist who starts the story in a mental ward. About ten years ago, Lyda and her collaborators developed a drug called Numinous, which gives people the sense of a higher power. There was an accident; Lyda and the other members of the team overdosed on the drug; when they came to their senses, each one had a psychosomatic god-presence fixed semi-permanently in their head, and Lyda’s wife was dead under murky circumstances. Now, a decade later, it’s looking like someone’s trying to market Numinous on the street, and Lyda’s determined to stop them.

I liked this book a lot. It had an unreliable narrator, like Parasite, and a crazy detective romp, like Rosemary and Rue, but I think I enjoyed it more than either one of them. Part of that was the characters and the pacing; I never felt like the story was moving too fast for me to follow, which is often a problem for me with action-packed books, and I thought the cast was large enough to be interesting and throw some red herrings in our path about whose alliances stood where without getting lost in too many people. I also really liked the way that Gregory hung a lantern on introductions of backstory. Lyda’s first-person narrator is the primary voice of this book, but we also hear a few times from another character embedded in the action, and every fifty pages or so, the semi-omniscient narrator who opens the book steps in as the third-person voice of someone else, to give us a bit of extra context where it’s needed. These were probably my favorite parts of the book; they mitigated what I’ll fully admit is one of the weaknesses of the first-person narrator, the problem of only being able to see and know what the narrator does. I’ll have to think about if I could manage something like this in my own book, because it worked extremely well.

I also liked how Lyda’s social relationships were sketched, both in the past and the present. This is the second book I’ve read recently where a gay or lesbian character’s sexuality is present but not central to the story as “queer sexuality” specifically; I said to Husband this morning that I suspect this is an artifact of books written in the last year or two, that only since then have authors been able to credibly incorporate “gay married people are no longer eyebrow-raising” into their near-future books. I believed Lyda’s relationship with her wife, and with the other members of the team who developed Numinous; I also believed her contemporary relationships, both romantic and platonic.

There were other little things, too: I liked that the main character was older than me, because it feels like genre fiction still hesitates to have a protagonist over the age of 25. I thought the primary overt antagonist was beautifully drawn (although I won’t say any more than that, because the way they’re introduced is half the joy). And I liked the glimpses we got of the larger world. Although the book’s focus is clearly on the drug culture, there’s a bigger picture here, too (American Indian relations with the US and Canada; the future of “the Internet of things”; advances in genetic engineering and assisted reproductive technology) and Gregory gives us just enough of it to make clear that he’s thought through this world carefully.

So, all in all, I’d recommend this one. Go check it out.


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