Premee Mohamed’s 2021 And What Can We Offer You Tonight is a standalone dystopic tale of revenge.
The world of the distant future is perfectly ordered and just. The wealthy are free to enjoy their wealth; the poor are free to work at ill-paid jobs and die of hunger and disease. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Courtesan Winsome Winfield is murdered by a client of her brothel, the House of Bicchieri. That’s OK by the House: a free-spending customer is more important than a mere prostitute.
The other courtesans of the House give their friend a quiet burial.
Winsome’s resurrection is utterly unexpected.
What brought Winsome back to life (or a semblance thereof) is unclear. Perhaps it is merely one of this era’s nanotech miracles. Perhaps (even though faith is near dead) some unnamed god made a small gesture toward justice. In any case, Winsome is risen.
Winsome has no interest in returning to her former occupation. Her new goal: punishing the elite for their transgressions.
Winsome’s friends Jewel and Nero collude to keep Winsome’s resurrection secret from their House. If their bosses — owners, really — were to learn that a vengeful murdered sex worker had returned from the grave, they would do anything to keep Winsome from wreaking revenge. But as careful as Winsome, Jewel, and Nero are, they cannot keep the House from connecting the dots. Nasty clients are dying; someone inside the House must be doing it. It soon becomes clear that it must be Winsome.
The House cannot tolerate a walking dead woman who is taking revenge on the clients. The bosses plan to entice her into a trap and murder her again. They have the perfect bait: Pederssen, Winsome’s murderer.
And What Can We Offer You Tonight is one of the novellas in publisher Neon Hemlock’s second novella series. Others in the series: The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler, This is How to Stay Alive by Shingai Njeri Kagunda, and The Secret Skin by Wendy N. Wagner. I’ve not read the other novellas in the series, but And What Can We Offer You Tonight is a very promising beginning.
The setting for this novella: the poor are spared the ravages of the economic system until they reach the age of ten, at which point they become fair game. Those who do not find some protector have very short lives. The wealthy are free to do as they please. Downward mobility is possible, but upward mobility is not.
This does not seem to be a particularly sustainable society — the city is full of ruins and the upper classes are more interested in their decadent pleasures than in governing — but that doesn’t seem to bother the powerful. They will (probably) be comfortable until they die; what happens after that is not their concern. Indeed, the misery of the poor seem to be part of the fun; how can anyone truly appreciate life without seeing others suffer?
The horror in this novel is more intimate than that found in Mohamed’s cosmic horror works. This is horror that is mere malevolence facilitated by a rigged economy and oppressive social hierarchies. There are no vast abominations here, no eldritch monsters, just all too familiar injustices. The only hint of anything supernatural (or possibly super science) is Winsome’s resurrection.
I was reminded of some of Tanith Lee’s more decadent Gothic fantasies. Being (as previously established) something of a Lee fan, I heartily approve of modern authors revisiting that particular genre.
And What Can We Offer You Tonight is available for pre-order here.