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Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis3.5 stars

Buy from IndieBoundIan Tregillis followed up his alternate-history Milkweed Triptych with this exercise in atmospheric supernatural noir that opens up more metaphysical storytelling avenues for him. Something More Than Night is a book bristling with a kind of creative ferocity, as it melds cosmology and theology straight out of Aquinas with the tormented tough-guy tropes of Philip Marlowe.

Set in a near future in which the earth has been impacted by climate change, the story opens as Bayliss, an angel who by his own account has more or less self-deported from the Heavenly Host, is tasked with finding a replacement (from among humans) for the recently murdered Archangel Gabriel. There are factions among the angelic choir, some of whom are seeking possession of the Jericho Trumpet, an artifact they believe will free them from the tyrannical rule of Metatron, the Voice of God.

As you might have guessed, replacing an angel means first relieving a person of the burden of living. But Bayliss botches things and misses his intended target, instead ushering into the afterlife a young woman named Molly Pruitt. Bayliss must first introduce the none-too-pleased Molly to her new celestial existence, which involves familiarizing her with the Pleroma (what we conventionally think of as “Heaven”) as well as the ability angels have of creating within the Pleroma their own Magisteria in which to live. Bayliss has, of course, patterned his Magisteria after old film noir and adopted a Sam Spade persona to a literal T.

Molly and Bayliss begin to investigate Gabriel’s murder. In true noir fashion, the crime is a serpentine web of double-crosses, secrets and wheels spinning within wheels. The story’s vision of theological concepts is, in keeping with noir, an extremely cynical one. If Christians found Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy blasphemous, they might very well be tempted to issue a fatwa (if they did that sort of thing) against Tregillis for this. These angels care nothing at all for human beings. To them, we’re really nothing more than an accidental side effect of the Mantle of Ontological Consistency, the set of laws and cosmological constants put into place by the sounding of the Jericho Trumpet. This event essentially shackled the power of these formerly limitless beings, and if they could find a way to break free, they’d do so, with no concern that doing so could destroy us.

Gabriel was in possession of the Jericho Trumpet. Is that why he was murdered? It sure does look like it. But some other details are very curious. Why was Gabriel keeping tabs on a fairly insignificant Chicago-area priest? Loose ends like these are par for the noir course, as they all require being brought together and tied up as the mystery gets closer to its solution and we comprehend exactly just what’s at stake.

The story’s slavish fidelity to the tropes of film noir and hard-boiled, pulp crime stories of the mean streets may seem, to some readers, laid on a bit thick. But for Tregillis, it’s much more than stylistic affectation. Understanding these genre tropes and how they work becomes central to Molly’s understanding of the rules of the strange new world she’s come to inhabit, and the mystery that caused her to be here in the first place. While I hope not to spoil anything, this does lead to a final act twist that pulls the rug so completely from under us that it’s driven some readers of this book to distraction. But stick with it, and you might end up enjoying, as I did, the sheer narrative audacity of it. A twist can be shown to work, or not work, by the simple expedient of reverse-engineering the story to see if events leading up to it build logically within the established narrative framework. Careful readers should, in fact, be able to spot the early clues, smile to themselves and nod in satisfaction.

Something More Than Night ends up a fresh, ambitious and fairly daring story that offers excitement, danger and mystery on a scale as big as existence itself. You know a book like this is gonna be trouble from the moment it walks into the room. But that’s exactly why you can’t turn away.