'Four legs!' snorted Tino, the strong man, 'You never saw an alien, it was probably a goat!' (p. 1)
As first lines go, it's a funny and captivating way to start a story which only grows more interesting the further in we read.
Nightingale is set in a post-apocalyptic future, though unlike any I've ever read about before. It's not entirely clear, at first, that the planet on which it's set is earth, an earth not too far in the future where the human species has been devastated by the currently very real threats of climate change and antibiotic resistant plague. Nevertheless it's not a bad place to live – if you don't mind being nannied and wrapped in cotton wool by the World Government, with the subsequent loss of any personal stimulation and spontaneity. In this world, even the mild excitement of the circus is banned. Most people seem to enjoy the security and safety now endemic throughout the world. Others, however, fight against the stagnation, trying to keep some passion for life flourishing.
One such is the eponymous heroine, Nightingale. Many of Palmer's works are peopled with characters immediately recognisable to the reader as individuals – not particularly likeable ones – readily met with in real life, but the septuagenarian Nightingale isn't one of them. Her purplish skin (the result of a disastrous fuel cell experiment) has something to do with it, as does her six foot plus height, her mass of wiry grey hair, and her habit of wearing multi-buckled black leather. She's autocratic, infinitely capable, and pretty fast with a gun, too. In her earlier days she had "clocked up a record in energy research that awed other scientists with twice her experience. It was her success in fuel cell development that now maximised the advances in renewable energy." (p. 16) She's now the Senior Controller of Group Indigo, a shadowy and extremely eccentric team tasked with investigating and if necessary controlling alien threats to earth.
Yes, alien threats: "World Security had been aware for several years of interdimensional alien intrusions." (p. 16) If that sounds a little like Torchwood, well, yes, there are faint echoes. But they are very faint, and don't obstruct the story. The aliens in this case are the Lictana, who have some rather special abilities... Add to the mix a young boy who can enter the other dimension and who is not altogether what he seems, an astonishingly colourful and deceptively nice World Government official meddler, and we have the ingredients for a unique and idiosyncratic tale.
It's an intriguing and often grimly funny story, told with the author's usual dry, sardonic wit. Palmer's style is succinct, the story unfolding a little like an intellectual puzzle: the reader needs to stay alert to appreciate what's happening, and to make the necessary connections between the various characters and the diverse elements of the plot. A somewhat demanding read: if your penchant is for the sci-fi equivalent of Mills and Boon, you'd be better off looking elsewhere. However, if you enjoy giving the grey matter a bit of a work out, Nightingale is well worth a try!
My only criticism would be the lack of in depth characterisations: I felt I would have liked to learn more about these very remarkable people. A little more description of the Lictanan continuum wouldn't have been out of place, either – and unfortunately I found the very end of the book disappointingly anti-climactic (the last chapter acts as an epilogue of sorts, and it's this that I refer to, not the end of the main plot, which is oddly satisfying). In the main, however, it's a very enjoyable, memorable book.