Chris McKinney’s career as an author began with The Tattoo in 2000, and Midnight, Water City is his seventh novel. The science fiction mystery is his first work of genre fiction, the first not set in his home state of Hawaii, and the first instalment of the Water City Trilogy. The novel is narrated in the first person by an anonymous narrator and in the present tense. It took me some time to realise both, which is a mark of the author’s literary skill. While use of the present tense can make for a more immediate, engrossing reading experience, it is difficult to do well and can have the opposite effect when it fails.
The narrative opens in 2142, with the murder of Akira Kimura, 40 years after she saved the planet from an extinction event. Kimura was despised when she first identified Sessho-seki (The Killing Rock), the asteroid on a collision course with Earth, as the bearer of bad news and because she was openly misanthropic when interviewed about it. Although she thought that only a tiny proportion of humanity was worth saving, she turned her genius to the creation of Ascalon, a cosmic ray powerful enough to alter the path of the asteroid before it destroyed Earth. The weapon worked and Kimura was propelled to unprecedented celebrity status, revered as a saint for the next four decades.
The narrator was recruited as Kimura’s head of security when she was receiving death threats and has been her right-hand man ever since, switching between the roles of bodyguard and assassin as required. Once protecting her was no longer a full-time job, he returned to his police duties, but received a call asking for his services again immediately before the novel begins. The narrator arrives too late, discovering her dead in her home, literally cut to pieces in a hibernation chamber that extends the lifespans of The Money (the socioeconomic elite) in the 22nd century. Later, he receives a posthumous message from Kimura, asking him to find her daughter – also named Ascalon – in order to apologise to her on Kimura’s behalf. He is shocked at the revelation as he has no knowledge of the child and realises that he did not know her nearly as well as he thought.
The plot is set in motion very quickly, in the first four pages, and by the end of the first third of the narrative the narrator has resigned from the police and accepted his twofold mission, to detect Kimura’s killer and to find her daughter. Despite being advertised as a ‘neo-noir procedural’, the novel is very much in the hardboiled detective tradition, with the protagonist driven by both rather than just one of the two storylines common to the genre, the murder mystery and the missing person. In keeping with the hardboiled tradition, the narrator is a complex character with a tainted past, hidden depths, and an idiosyncratic type of synaesthesia that gives him a head start against other detectives.
McKinney not only sets the plot in motion with ease and expertise, but handles the exposition effectively and economically. By the seventh page one already has a good grasp of his 22nd century: Kimura’s unique status; the preference for living in submarine high rises; the existence of suits that control one’s environment completely; the ability to prolong the human lifespan artificially; and much more. Again, it is a testament to McKinney’s literary skill that he is able to communicate so much so quickly without committing the creative writing sin of ‘information dumping’.
My sole criticism of the novel is that while the worldbuilding is for the most part conducted with a light touch, it never stops (chapter 21 of 27 is, for example, mostly exposition) and the cumulative effect is a little like wading through water: unusual and pleasing at first, but becoming gradually more exhausting as one continues. Notwithstanding, Midnight, Water City is a seamless blend of crime, science fiction and social commentary that can be read as either the first in a trilogy or as a standalone mystery.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars