S.A. Swann’s first novel — the beginning of a thematic trilogy — is set in a (by now) near-future America. It’s a 1990s cyberpunk-ish future, actually, where future-tech is still wired and location-based, the nation’s cities are in decline, and a world war involving nuclear weapons don’t necessarily mean the end of civilization as we know it. Japan and India are wastelands now, and the soldiers who were genetically engineered to fight in these wars have settled into an uneasy peace-time where they’re second-class citizens.
Nohar Rajasthan is the descendant of one of those soldiers, a human-animal hybrid named a ‘moreau’ for obvious reasons. He’s scraping together a good-enough existence as a private eye, living in the ghetto reserved for his kind. One day, a genetically-engineered human (called “frankensteins”) approaches him about investigating the murder of a baseline human. And if that didn’t make him uneasy enough, the victim just so happens to be linked to a well-known anti-moreau politicians with dreams of becoming a Senator. Despite his better judgement, he takes the case and quickly gets involved in a much bigger situation, because that’s how these things go.
Forests of the Night is a straightforward hybrid of detective noir and cyberpunk thriller, and it works pretty well. Swann has a solid handle on the tropes and structure of a good detective story, and he plugs in his own imaginative spins quite easily. This type of story hinges on the personality of its main character, how well the motivations of its supporting cast stays hidden (and seems plausible once they’re revealed) and how well you’re able to keep up with the many twists in the plot. I think it works on at least two of three levels, though I imagine your mileage may vary with the third.
Nohar is an uplifted tiger, essentially; a massive guy (around 8 feet and 500 pounds) who wants to do his work while staying out of trouble. In the grand noir tradition, however, trouble seems to find him no matter what. What’s interesting about Nohar, obviously, is his physical difference — we really buy into his character whenever Swann thinks through how life would be different for a guy with fur and claws. For the most part, that’s the only thing that really serves to set Nohar apart. He follows the template of your basic noir detective — gruff and stoic, with reserves of inner pain and a heart of gold. He doesn’t get in many fights because of a mental block, of sorts. When a switch gets flipped, he’s fantastically deadly, but turning on The Beast leaves him drained and shaky afterwards. It’s kind of interesting that we have a protagonist who is more than physically capable of wrecking house, but doesn’t do so because the drawbacks are far too high.
The world that Nohar inhabits is pretty interesting as well. There’s a lot of social parallels between moreaus and just about any other minority with its own insular culture, and that part in particular helped to draw me in to the setting. Moreytown is a run-down area in Cleveland long ago abandoned by most humans, patrolled by a single pair of policemen to make sure any trouble inside the neighborhood doesn’t spill out into the rest of the city. Crumbling buildings, a thriving set of street gangs, bars with its own set of regulars and addicts — Moreytown has the works. And the people who get along inside of it are largely accepting of their fate, generally disinterested in a wider world that they see as hostile. Any involvement with humans, whether or not it’s positive on the surface, is a harbinger of trouble. It reminds me of my neighborhood growing up, come to think of it. The black urban community thinks the same way of the larger, white-dominated world around them.
Which is why it’s so odd that the one black person encountered in Forests of the Night — a cab driver that Nohar hires when he needs to check out a bunch of places around town — seems right out of central casting for an 80s cop movie. She’s a minor character in every possible way, but she still peppers her speech with outdated slang. “Sheeeee-it,” she says when she sees that her fare is a moreau.
The supporting cast, in general, are unquestionable allies of Nohar and his quest to uncover the truth. There’s Stephanie Weir, a human romantically connected to the victim fulfilling the femme fatale role. Manny, a mongoose moreau and Nohar’s best friend, is the voice of reason. And Angel is a lepine moreau who offers street-level pieces of the puzzle while being generally “tough” and obnoxious. Imagine a little rabbit voiced by Michelle Rodriguez, and you get the idea. We get a better sense of Nohar through his interactions with these people, and they offer vastly different perspectives of the world that help to deepen it and give it weight. For the most part, the world-building is deftly handled through character arcs and interactions, so well done there.
The mystery itself is a bit of a head-scratcher. There are so many players involved in so many different layers that it’s a little difficult to follow how one piece of the puzzle fits into the next. We don’t really get a good high-level view of what’s going on until the final confrontation, where Nohar puts everything together in a few pages of really late (and sort of convoluted) exposition. Still, it makes sense once things are figured out, and once it was all laid out I figured out the final twist perhaps a page or two ahead of the protagonist. The twists could stand to be a little more clearly sketched so it’s easier to know which direction Nohar has just been turned, but it’s also clear that Swann has a clear idea of what’s happening and it’s easy to trust in him to tie everything together. And to his credit, he does.
Ultimately this is a great little pot-boiler of a novel; nothing deep or thoughtful, but the action moves along at a rapid pace, the characters are intriguing enough to be taken along for the ride, and the world is fascinating enough that you’ll want to spend some time there. Forests of the Night is the first book in a trilogy featuring various characters in mid 21st-century America, and I’m looking forward to dipping back into the setting with the follow-up, Emperors of the Twilight. Nohar is a minor character there, alas, but it’ll be good to see how he’s doing.