Recent Reading: ALIBI by Sharon Shinn

Okay, don’t go looking for this one; it’s not out and I have no idea if it’s even been scheduled for release yet. But it will come out eventually, and I’ve read it, so here’s a heads-up review post, and when it comes out, no doubt I’ll remember to mention that.

Meanwhile! How many of you have read this one?

This is Sharon Shinn’s retelling of Jane Eyre as a SF novel. After being educated at a technical school that focuses on the growth of the mind to the exclusion of all else, Jenna accepts a job as a nuclear reactor maintenance technician at remote Thorrastone Park, owned by the wealthy Everett Ravenbeck.

As this is a Jane Eyre retelling, I expect you can pretty well imagine how the plot unfolds. It’s not my favorite of Sharon Shinn’s novels … full disclosure: I don’t really like Jane Eyre. (Sorry! I don’t!) If you love Jane Eyre, then obviously you should read Jenna Starborn because you’re practically certain to love it. If you’ve never read Jane Eyre, here’s your chance to get acquainted with this classic by reading an SF novel. If you wind up loving Jenna Starborn, you can then go back and read Jane Eyre. I will add, I liked Railsea FAR FAR better than Moby Dick. Sometimes that’s how it works out — the retelling is just a lot more appealing than the original. Granted, Railsea eventually becomes a huge departure from the original. That’s one reason I liked it a lot better.

But the actual reason I bring Jenna Starborn up right now is because it’s an SF setting and also it’s told in the first person. Alibi is a little the same, though it’s not a retelling of any kind and also the SF setting is near-future.

I did pause for a second to think, okay, are any others of Sharon Shinn’s books in first person? And yes — Summers at Castle Auburn is first person, and so are two of the three exquisite Safe-Keeper stories, which are NOT ALL LINKED TOGETHER ON AMAZON, WHATEVER, PUBLISHERS, so here are book one, book two, book three, if you would like to click over to them and take a look. They each stand alone, and my personal favorite is Book Two: A Truth-Teller’s Tale, but all three are lovely. Anyway, as I say, I was thinking about that because Alibi is first person.

Other than that, it’s not very similar! Because it’s near-future SF, so it’s basically like a contemporary setting, only with a few twists. Also, it’s a murder mystery, so that’s different. Wrapt in Crystal, which I loved, has a strong mystery element, by the way. But it’s not really a murder mystery, and Alibi … is almost a murder mystery. More on that in a minute.

So, let me tell you about the future!

1) Cool slang

I loved the slang in this book. Slang is difficult to do well — CJC did a great job with this in Heavy Time and Hellburner, which have been collected in a duology volume called (weirdly) Devil to the Belt. You know what, that makes me feel better about struggling to come up with titles and subtitles, because really? Devil to the Belt? Also, these books do not appear to be available in ebook form either as single books or as this duology. WHATEVER, PUBLISHERS. I linked the duology volume with the weird title because it’s a really good price right now compared to picking up each book separately. I mean, as long as you’re okay with paper rather than ebooks. Another trilogy that comes to mind for great slang is the trilogy by Shelby, Across a Jade Sea, which is not collected in one series page, so here, first book, second book, third book. I really liked this trilogy, which is self-published and could use a cover upgrade, but at least it’s available in ebook form and also, it’s really good, so take a look.

Anyway, slang is hard to do well, and Alibi offers great slang. It feels like it could be real slang and it’s fun. You know what would also be fun? Dropping this book in school libraries and seeing if you could get kids to start using this slang. “Oh, jazz! Jazz without cessation!” It would be hilarious if you could get phrases like that to catch on.

2) Creepy holograms

One thing I have never, ever wanted is a hologram of a dead relative occupying my living room. Ugh.

3) Earfones.

Yeah, we are practically right there at this very moment. I did say this was near-future. I am kind of a slow-adopter of technology, so I doubt I will ever have a phone implanted in my head.

4) Teleportation

And this is of course a really important element of the setting. I wouldn’t mind this invention! Let’s go, somebody invent teleportation!

Also, this creates a situation that is kind of the opposite of a locked-room mystery. It’s not quite the opposite because there are restrictions — you need a code to teleport into someone’s house — but, I mean, if you have the right code, you can teleport right into someone’s house. I mean someone rich who has a teleport both in his house, like our murder victim. Who is a super, super unpleasant guy with, one expects, nigh-unto-infinite enemies.

There are other differences between a real-world setting and this near-future setting, but those are the ones that leap to mind. Especially that last one.

How about the mystery?

All right, so, I don’t read mysteries for the mystery, as a rule. I read mysteries for the characters and the setting. However, I’m usually a little disappointed if the mystery fails too badly as a mystery. So, how does the mystery in Alibi stack up?

It’s pretty good! At least for me! I did not figure out who did it until right before the protagonist figured it out. This is despite clues that in retrospect were pretty obvious, so that’s exactly how a murder mystery ought to work. I will be curious to see, when this book eventually comes out, how many of you and how many readers in general figure it out long before I did. I was distracted by a large number of characters, almost all of whom I really loved and almost none of whom I wanted to be the murderer.

The most unusual thing here is how late the murder takes place — quite near the end. This is why I’d say this story is almost a murder mystery. We don’t meet the victim until rather late in the book, he is just as awful as everyone says he is, we are like PLEASE, SOMEONE, MURDER THIS GUY, and then he is murdered, so that’s just fine. But the book is about the characters and their lives and then also eventually there is this murder. It’s really a slice-of-life type of story. And then the murder. This actually reminds me of Jennifer Cruisie’s Welcome to Temptation. That was the first of her books that I read, and it is a romance … it’s a romance … still a romance … boom! Astonishingly close to the end, it’s also a murder mystery. I did not see that coming AT ALL, though now I realize that kind of thing is fairly characteristic of Cruisie’s novels. Plus, in Welcome to Temptation, the person who gets murdered is not a nice person, so the reader probably doesn’t mind that suddenly there’s a murder mystery in this story.

Alibi is like that too. It’s a slice-of-life story with a significant romance subplot and then it’s also a murder mystery. The mystery itself does not drag out for all that long. The protagonist is a primary suspect (though really there are any number of suspects), and she loses her head a bit and stumbles onto the real murderer, and this all takes place quite quickly, after which we have the falling action where the unpleasant murder victim is dead and everyone else gets set to have a nice life.

So, how about the protagonist and other characters?

Here is where the story really shines!

There are roughly ten thousand characters and (other than the murder victim) they are all neat people who are fun to spend time with. It’s amazing that Shinn can bring this many characters to life on the page, but here they are: vivid, distinctive, real people, all of whom are unique and appealing. It’s the characters that make this story sing.

The protagonist, Taylor, is an English teacher, so that’s fun right there. She assigns her students to write a post-apocalyptic story and suggests they set it at the school and bring their classmates into their stories as characters and you know what, I immediately wanted to teach a creative writing class and assign that exact project. Taylor is also really into poetry, so there’s plenty of poetry in this novel, including a snippet of a poem by Emily Dickinson.

As imperceptibly as Grief

The summer lapsed away —

Too imperceptible at last

To seem like Perfidy —

The whole poem is here if you would like to read it. The poetry also makes this story sing. It’s practically impossible to include too much poetry in a novel, as far as I’m concerned. But, besides being an English teacher, Taylor is also specifically good at connecting with people. The romance subplot depends on this element. It’s a restrained element, possibly because there are SO MANY other characters and Taylor is friends with them all. I loved her brother (and would have liked to see more of him), and her friends Marika and Domenic (I would LOVE to see MUCH more of him, and suggested him as the lead in a possible sequel).

Taylor is the first-person protagonist and she does drive the action, such as it is because mostly this is slice-of-life, remember. But the center of the story is actually Quentin, a kid with a progressive neuromuscular disease that will eventually kill him unless some effective treatment is developed. The story and most of the characters revolve around Quentin, including Taylor, who is hired as his English tutor; the male lead, Bram, who is an ex-cop and now head of security; Dennis, who is Quentin’s physical therapist; Francis, who is the butler; Bordeaux, who is difficult to describe so I’m not going to try; and Quentin’s father, who is fortunately mostly offstage as he is so very unpleasant that we definitely don’t want to spend time with him. And almost anybody except Quentin’s father would ALSO make a neat lead character for a sequel, especially Bordeaux. But also Bram or Dennis. Honestly, there is just a plethora of very neat characters here.

Overall:

I’m not sure I would have pegged this as a Sharon Shinn novel if I hadn’t known. I recognized Ninth Daughter as Barbara Hambly even though it’s a historical mystery and the name on the cover is “Barbara Hamilton.” I pegged that one because a specific incident reorients the reader’s opinion of a secondary character in a way that is highly characteristic of Barbara Hambly. There were probably turns of phrase I recognized as well, but didn’t consciously notice. It was characterization that did it for me there.

I think, here, if I’d recognized the author, that might have been due to some of the metaphorical language plus characterization. Sharon Shinn is outstanding at powerful metaphorical imagery that captures emotional truth. That’s the case here as well. There’s a particular metaphor … let me see …

“I had this picture in my head, all these bodies kneeling on the ground, hunched over, their hands over their heads. Just one big desert landscape dotted with these dark sad people who were close enough to touch and yet separated from each other by miles of — grief, I suppose.”

And this is what Taylor is all about, actually — reaching out to people who have been separated from each other, bringing them together.

So — eventually! When this book is released! You can see what you think. In the meantime, it gets added to the surprisingly large stack of novels I’m beta reading for people this year.

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3 thoughts on “Recent Reading: ALIBI by Sharon Shinn”

  1. Heavy time and Hellburner are both available as ebooks here: https://www.closed-circle.net/ebook-catalog#ebooks ; scroll down to C.J.Cherryh and then Belt miners. The link to Belt miners in the left margin does’t work.

    C.J.Cherryh and two author friends, Jane Fancher and Lynn Abbey, chose to set up their own website for selling their ebooks at closed-circle.net ; there they published the books for which the rights had reverted to them, as well as some new books and stories that hadn’t found a publisher, including two Foreigner prequel short stories featuring Illisidi and Tabini.

    With their health problems and small resources it’s been hard for them to administer that website well, and the books don’t get distributed to the big online booksellers. Joining Book View Cafe might be a better option, and I suggested that at the time; but they preferred to keep things under their own control.
    I fear it’s limited their sales and continues to do so, since you didn’t find those ebooks.

  2. Thank you, Hanneke; I definitely think you were right about this limiting their sales terribly.

  3. ALIBI sounds like lots of fun.

    I read Jenna Starborn years ago. I read the whole thing, but I didn’t like it as much as I do most of Shinn’s. But I am not a fan of Jane Eyre either.

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