I was incredibly excited when I saw that Adam-Troy Castro, one of my favorite short-story writers, had finally published a novel. And Emissaries From The Dead is as great as I'd hoped, a noirish murder mystery set inside an artificial environment created by A.I.s for some unknown purpose. As with the best detective novels, Andrea Cort's murder investigation uncovers a slew of other mysteries, which unravel the dark secrets of the artificial intelligences and the humans' expedition to study them.
In Emissaries From The Dead, Andrea Cort is an investigator for the DipCorps, the humans' diplomatic organization which keeps its members in a form of indentured semi-slavery in exchange for getting them off their hellish homeworlds. Cort has her own horrendous secret, and has been branded a war criminal, but corruption turns out to be the norm in the DipCorps. (One feature I liked about Emissaries was its use of spaceships with sleep chambers in place of the easier magic faster-than-light drive. It means Cort is really on her own in dealing with the unknown murderer.)
Cort gets assigned to One One One, a tube-shaped artificial environment completely with artificially engineered intelligent life forms, the Brachiators. The habitat has artificial gravity, artificial suns... and a horrendous toxic atmosphere at its center. The humans live in a maze of hammocks hanging over a sheer drop into the toxic cloud. Oh, and did I mention the A.I.s have created anatomically correct dragons, which fly around just below the humans' levels, breathing fire at anyone who comes too close?
I don't want to give away too much of Emissaries' plot, because the twists and turns are a huge part of its appeal. I will mention that it reminded me of a Ross MacDonald novel, in that Cort basically stomps into this complex nest of relationships and secrets, and leaves them a shambles. Pretty much everybody has a secret, and she can't solve the main mystery until she uncovers the corruption and internecine warfare that have been going on long before her arrival. The actual murder mystery involves two women who have been killed in spectacular and gruesome ways, by someone who keeps sending Andrea Cort bloody and disturbing holograms of her own torture and murder. (To be fair, though, I sort of guessed the central murder mystery about a third of the way into the book, but the world-building and other mysteries were absorbing enough that I didn't care that I was right.) Andrea Cort is almost comically reckless, with a death wish mixed with a willingness to do whatever it takes to force her opponent's hand.
The other awesome aspect of Emissaries is the Porrinyards, a male-female couple who are cy-linked, meaning they've become one individual with a shared consciousness. They often speak in unison, and have sex with other people as one person, so it's sort of like a threesome but sort of not. The gestalt-duo thingy means that they can be apart, but each of them knows what the other is seeing. (And when only one of them is asleep, he/she can shape the other's dreams.)
The way the novel ends, plus the "An Andrea Cort Novel" tag on the front, makes it look as though this is the first book in a series of standalone mysteries set in this universe of enslaved diplomats and semi-omnipotent A.I.s. I really hope that turns out to be the case, because both Cort and her universe have terrific scope for development. Emissaries From The Dead