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Dark Heavens
Roger Levy
Gollancz, 389 pages

Dark Heavens
Roger Levy
Roger Levy is a dentist who doesn't use freaky future technology on his patients' teeth. He lives in England with his wife and children. He's also the author of Reckless Sleep.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Reckless Sleep
SF Site Review: Reckless Sleep
The Morning After, a short story by Roger Levy

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Roger Levy's second novel, Dark Heavens, is billed as a sequel to his debut, Reckless Sleep. But fans of that book shouldn't be expecting to read about the continuing adventures of anti-hero Jon Sciler. Dark Heavens is a thematic followup rather than a direct story continuation, involving a whole new plotline and a (mostly) different cast of characters.

The setting is a near-future Earth slowly being ripped apart by tectonic collapse, in the wake of devastating acts of global eco-terrorism. The environment has become all but unlivable, the air choked with volcanic ash, the ground and water poisoned, the landscape scarred by enormous rifts. The only hope for the human race is to go elsewhere: Dirangesept, a distant planet with an Earth-like environment. But Dirangesept has its own inhabitants, mysterious beings that, to human perception, appear as mythological beasts, and they aren't interested in being colonized. Twice they have savagely driven the human forces back. Now Earth's government prepares for a third attempt, promising the would-be colonists that they have finally found a way to overcome the beasts.

Cy Augur works for the Active branch of the CMS (Consensual Mass Suicides) Department. As the world collapses, suicide cults have become commonplace, led by religious visionaries who promise their followers a straight trip to heaven in exchange for the hell that is life on Earth. It's Augur's job to make sure that these Leavings aren't mere mass murder, and even though he's fully aware that Earth's government would be just as happy to turn a blind eye in the interest of population reduction, he takes his job seriously. But his conscientiousness has made him enemies. When a Leaving goes horribly wrong, those enemies step in to strip him of his investigative responsibilities, demoting him to a desk job in the Passive branch of CMS.

Among the cases that have been taken away from Augur is a series of odd apparent suicides among GenMed students. GenMed has special (and terrible) meaning for Augur, for his wife, a former nanotechnology researcher, is a patient in its research wing, locked in a virtual coma. Though he's been forbidden to have anything to do with investigation, Augur finds he can't let this one go, and he continues, secretly, to dig at the case -- with the help of Astrid, another GenMed student, who has become suspicious about some of the odd research going on at GenMed. Slowly, Augur and Astrid uncover a dark conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of government, involving the Leavings, GenMed's shady research projects, and the dark side of the nanotechnology pioneered by Augur's wife -- all of it pointing toward Dirangesept, and the soon-to-depart third colonization attempt.

Like its predecessor, Dark Heavens takes the nominal form of a murder mystery -- though once again, it's not really the murders that are the point, but the journey of discovery they force the protagonists to undertake. The denouement has far less to do with who's killing GenMed students than with why -- and the why goes to the heart of a much larger and more encompassing mystery, in which the deaths are almost a red herring. The mystery structure allows Levy to build considerable suspense -- and also, cleverly, to misdirect the reader, so that though each new piece of the puzzle follows logically upon the others, it's impossible, all the way to the end, to predict how things will turn out. It's really adroit plotting, accomplished with an assurance and a relentless narrative drive that propel the reader irresistably forward, even where the puzzle pieces aren't quite plausible (a twist toward the end, in which a character too conveniently deduces a crucial fact from the slimmest of clues; the final mystery, which involves a not-entirely-convincing altered-human-as-VR-operating-system theme reminiscent of Tad Williams' recent Otherland series).

This is a deeply cynical book, with its hypocritical religious leaders selling dreams of tailor-made heavens to their desperate flocks, its unctuous politicians willing to sacrifice thousands of lives for "the greater good", its scientists so enamored of their research that the suffering of their subjects never registers -- not to mention the human race as a whole, which has no qualms about committing genocide if it will win them escape to Dirangesept. Dirangesept isn't just a refuge, a last hope, it's the archetypal human dream of paradise -- both the promised paradise of the afterlife, a reward for terrible suffering on ravaged planet Earth, and the lost paradise of the beginning, a chance to regain the Eden humankind has destroyed -- and it's used and manipulated by ruthless leaders in order to control the masses, just as the idea of heaven always has been. Gloomy as Levy's vision is, however, at the center of his story are honorable people who refuse to sacrifice their integrity even in the face of the most awful desperation, who scrabble for, and find, love among the ruins. In the end, his protagonists choose to turn away from the dream of heaven -- a false dream, gained at too great a cost -- and embrace, in hope and compassion, the ordinary hell they live in.

Despite the stand-alone plot, Dark Heavens assumes a familiarity with crucial elements of Reckless Sleep -- the circumstances that brought the earth to devastation, the cults and mass suicides, Dirangesept and its beasts, the mysterious virtual world of Cathar (which, as before, holds the key to a greater mystery). Enough information is provided so that the first-time reader will probably catch on, but if you haven't read the first book, some things, such as Augur's journey into Cathar, may seem arbitrary, and others, such as the government's strategy for annihilating Dirangesept's beasts, won't carry as much impact. Dark and gripping, challenging and suspenseful, this fine novel is a worthy followup to Levy's impressive debut, and should help establish him as one of the more original voices in British SF.

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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