Book Review: The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch


The Disappeared, a Retrieval Artist novel by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
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In the interest of full disclosure: I discovered this book via Storybundle. That is all.

An entertaining blend of science fiction, mystery, and police drama about people on the run from the law, and the police who have to decide between upholding that law and their own moral judgement.

Before I begin this review, let me point that I do have a certain, hmm… prior bias, merely to provide my readers an opportunity to take that bias into account.

While I do enjoy the occasional science fiction novel, I tend to prefer fantasy. Also, the element of crime and mystery present in The Disappeared puts its genre so far outside of my usual reading material that, had I not encountered it via one of Storybundle’s story… er, bundles, I might never have heard of it, and I definitely would never have read it.
And that oversight on my part does the book a serious injustice. Having read this book, I eagerly look forward to continuing the series.

There is another bias, of sorts, but I’ll get to that later. On to the review!

The Earth Alliance has joined together many alien cultures, many strange customs. Among these are the customs of law.

The Disty will kill you if you have ever wronged them, mutilate your body and put it on display as a warning to others. They will do the same to anyone caught trying to help you.

The Rev will send you to a penal colony to work until they are satisfied with your repentance. Humans rarely survive in these places.

The Wygnin, the race that even lawyers fear to fight, the race that nobody wants to cross… the Wygnin will take your children and transform them into their own kind.

And humans are required by law to allow these cultures their own forms of justice.

Miles Flint is a detective in the Armstrong Dome on the moon. He has lived with this type of society, these types of laws, most of his life, but has never truly had to deal with the consequences of those laws before now.
Never, that is, until he encounters the victims of each race in a matter of days, one right after another.

The Disappeared is not your typical mystery novel. “Whodunnit” is clear from the start… with the possible exception of the Disty killing, and that only because the detectives must, as a matter of procedure, consider the possibility of an imitator.
The mysteries, instead, are: Why did they do it; what did the victims, or the victims’ parents in the case of the Wygnin, do that justified these actions? Do the aliens have the proper warrants; is it truly legal to allow them their forms of justice… or to continue blocking them?
And, since every victim was found to have employed a Disappearance service–an industry that is technically legal to exist but not legal to use–to change their identities for exactly this sort of reason, how did their pursuers track them down?

And quite possibly the biggest mystery of all: how will Flint or or partner Noelle DeRicci reconcile the laws they are required to uphold with their moral objections?

The first mystery, that of “why” is revealed, in every case, little by little throughout the entire novel.
The ability to uncover that information sometimes requires illegal activity on Flint’s part, but his part in learning the truth is generally acceptable in the face of seeking justice of any sort.
The answer to that mystery, however, shows just how different these aliens are than humans, as they often take what we might see as drastic forms of justice over apparently insignificant crimes.

The bulk of Flint’s and DeRicci’s jobs is to work on the second mystery: do these aliens truly have the right to seek their brand of justice?
Each group of aliens is required to provide warrants, to prove that their actions are legal, that this particular human is legitimate quarry. The humans, meanwhile, must do what they can to prove the warrants are not valid, to prevent an innocent from suffering over a mistake.

The third mystery, that of how the aliens track people down, becomes something of a personal project for Flint after he notices some rather disturbing similarities between the victims.
The answer to this mystery takes him most of the novel to find, and what he learns is the final step in questioning the very laws he is required to protect.

And the final mystery, the legal concerns versus the moral ones.
Nobody wants to simply give up a person to these alien forms of justice, no matter what crime might have been committed. But when it becomes clear that the aliens’ warrants are valid, the humans must make a choice between the morally objectionable or the illegal.
Noelle DeRicci has given people up to the alien justice before, and it becomes increasingly evident that she will do so again, no matter how little she approves. She is willing to do what she can to protect herself and Flint from her superiors’ rage, but she will not take that same chance with the aliens.
Flint, on the other hand, spends a good share of the novel trying to figure out how to outwit the aliens, the Wygnin in particular. He struggles in vain to separate his profession from his heart, and is determined to find a way to protect one of the Wygnin’s quarry, an infant that reminds him far too much of his own long-lost daughter. The mystery here becomes less about how far he will go to protect that child, but more about whether he can do so without making himself a target.

The novel did have a few problems–typos and spelling errors, mostly–but these were insignificant, barely noticeable upon reading the story and not interfering with my ability to understand what was happening (which, since I claim to rarely notice such errors except when they interfere, suggests I might be getting a little better at spotting them, but I digress).
Those errors were, ultimately, forgettable; I know they were there, but it would take another read-through to look for them simply to remember what they were.

The plot was engrossing, a little outside of my usual reading material, but it certainly left me wanting more. And isn’t that, after all, what any good book should do? 🙂

There was only one detail that I found disappointing, and I think that detail says a lot more about me than it does about the book.
See, when I read a book like this, full of exotic creatures and unfathomable customs, I start to expect to see it everywhere. So I fully expected to learn that Flint’s daughter Emmeline had been killed by something just as exotic as the cases he was taking on.
I was definitely surprised, and yes, a little disappointed, to learn that her death had a completely mundane cause. But I think, even more than my disappointment at the plot point this represented, was my disappointment at the society, at the too-believable notion that we can travel the stars and still face impatient daycare providers and shaken baby syndrome.

And now for a bit of an unrelated oddity, which is my other “bias.”

I am a fan of, perhaps even obsessed with, Doctor Who.
What does this have to do with this novel, you ask?
Technically nothing, at least not on the author’s part. But I do have this odd tendency now and again to approach a story and wonder how it would work in other storyverses, Doctor Who in this case, regardless of how the story stands on its own.

Given the nature of the Disty killings early in the novel, Torchwood might be the better comparison, but I could easily imagine a story arc featuring Ms.Rusch’s Retrieval Arists, perhaps even Detective Flint himself.

Barring that possibility, which would require both the BBC and Ms. Rusch to approve, perhaps a movie might be made of the books someday.
And perhaps, in such a case, David Tennant could play Miles Flint. 😀 I visualized him in the role from the moment the detective was introduced, and I simply couldn’t stop seeing him… albeit as Broadchurch’s Alec Hardy, for some odd reason, in spite of Flint’s description suggesting otherwise.

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