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by Michael David Ares
Tor, $25.99, 286 pages
Published: March 2018

Authors have to learn elevator pitches to be able to effectively sell their books: one liners that capture what they write in essence, often referencing pop culture as a shortcut. This novel feels like a few different elevator pitches all wrapped up into one and I rather like the playful connections.

Many have cited 'Blade Runner' but I don't buy that, even if this futuristic New York is perpetually dark and the story that unfolds within it is clearly film noir. It could just as easily be described as 'A Fistful of Dollars' in 'Escape from New York' with serial killers but I'd go for 'RoboCop' in Isaac Asimov's 'Nightfall' and be sad that I felt the need to clarify the latter. You might conjure up other pop culture references instead; there are surely plenty to be found.

If you don't remember 'Nightfall', it was once voted the greatest science fiction short story written before 1965 when the Nebula Awards were founded. It's a fantastic story, first published in 'Astounding' in 1941, that's set on the planet of Lagash, which is constantly illuminated by a set of six suns, meaning that night never falls. Well, it does every two thousand years or so, with a periodic six sun eclipse, when the night sky full of stars comes out and everyone goes insane with the sudden realisation that they're not alone in the universe.

This novel takes this idea and brings it home, explaining that some sort of war between India and Pakistan has plunged areas of the northern hemisphere into a nuclear winter, including New York, which has been dark for a decade and is finally approaching the point when the sun is expected to return. As the book's title suggests, this is very much a riff on 'Nightfall', in reverse and in microcosm.

For some reason, New Yorkers don't leave for Philly or some other nearby city which has remained in daylight; they stick it out instead, even shrinking their city quite considerably with the construction of a wall to block the rising sea levels that would otherwise flood them. The assumption is that they're content living up to their time-honoured description as 'the city that never sleeps'.

You might also expect that New Yorkers might be looking forward to the end of their decade-long night, but it isn't that simple. Scientists float all sorts of psychological reasons why they're going to go mad, and the people are buying into them, but partly that's due to the importance of the Dayfall Killer on the tone of the city. He's a serial killer haunting the streets and reducing the faith of New Yorkers in the authorities who aim to serve and protect.

This brings in the 'RoboCop' angle, not with robot law enforcement but with a pair of warring leaders eager to be the ones who save the city from Dayfall, the Dayfall Killer and itself. One is the Mayor, Rialle King, who is increasingly unpopular with constituents who just want to feel safe again. The other is Garth Render, who runs a private security firm called Gotham Security, whom Mayor King dismissed as 'Nazis'. It's easy to read Render as a populist leader in the Trump vein, but he's more stable and so more reminiscent of the faceless suits at the top of OCP in 'RoboCop' who have lost faith in regular law enforcement and have their own replacement ready to go. Here, many cops are sympathetic to GS, which means more trouble for the Mayor.

Enter our lead, Detective Jon Phillips, a cop who successfully takes down a serial killer in Philadelphia in the very first chapter, merely outside of his jurisdiction, a combination of circumstances which prompts his transfer to New York to take lead on the Dayfall Killer case a mere thirty hours before the sun is due to return. Of course, his odds aren't good, especially as the NYPD has got precisely nowhere, but he knows how unlikely success is and so is happy to hurl accusations anywhere he feels they might prompt a response.

'Dayfall' is interesting and engaging but it's also just a little awkward, as if this was a debut novel. It is, by the way, and it's clear that Michael David Ares is finding his voice but hasn't quite found it yet. His ideas are good ones and there are passages that he nails absolutely. I'd suggest that the best is one with Phillips talking to two university professors, one of whom provides lucid explanations and the other becomes noise because he's too esoteric to connect.

It could be said that Jon Phillips is finding his voice too, because he's a relatively bland lead, certainly not the Philip Marlowe that he hopes to be in character, even if he's Marlowe in approach, stirring the pot until something tries to bite him. For all that this is a science fiction novel revolving around a serial killer, the tone plays into a Philip Marlowe sort of story too, with an engaging femme fatale in bartender Mallory Cassady and a suitably gruff Irish sidekick in Officer Frank Halliday, who lives in a brothel with a former prostitute.

I liked where the mystery took us, with its various red herrings, but it does suggest that the NYPD aren't firing on all cylinders if they couldn't get a lot closer on this one without outside help. I liked how Ares used familiar settings within New York as location even as he changed up that city in response to new environmental factors. In fact, I liked quite a lot of things here, even as I wondered how the author would see his novel when looking back from the safe viewpoint of a few more books hence. I have a feeling that he'd see it as a worthy novel but one which he would write very differently, having learned all he'd learned in the intervening years. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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