The Eternal Prison by Jeff Somers

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The Eternal Prison by Jeff Somers

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A compelling future thriller regarding prison life and assassination errands for our hero does not survive the middle period when the two plotlines join up.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841497051

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This book stands out in the high-energy, hard-edged sci-fi adventure/thriller genre, in that it covers two stories at the same time. In one chapter we have Avery Cates, practically the best gun-for-hire in his post-apocalyptic North America, being told to kill one of the most protected and important people left in the world, by other, almost as important people, in the cruel mix of powerplays that make up the current politics. In the other corner is Cates, being thrown in prison - one of those basic, hell-on-earth, surrounded by miles of desert, prisons. Here, too, he will be told to do jobs for other people...

The set up of two stories in alternating chapters raises questions. Which is happening before the other? We might find out early on. How and when will they converge? This comes later. Will the merits of the split and its unity shine? Unfortunately, in this case, the answer to that last, is no.

I have a grudging approval of the books in this series, by Jeff Somers. The first, The Electric Church, had some derivative and clunky features, but told enough of a story well, with some thought put into the cyber-religious powers Somers was introducing to his world. The Digital Plague went a little OTT with Cates, but was opening out and maturing clearly.

Here we see an author interested in the ideas and process included in putting his plots across, hence the split dual storylines. It's a relief to say that however many times one might have seen or read of an all-too successful assassin being given the seemingly impossible job, or of an inmate in a free-for-all jail, we don't see stereotypes, but confidently used things that are familiar at worst.

However there comes the time when Somers must patch things together, and I felt this was a big problem. Stand up, Part Two, for I struggled with you, and by the time I had got my head round what I was being shown, I was left with the taste that however artistically the concepts were being presented, however fresh and novel they might be to some future-noir genre such as this, they weren't as original as Somers thinks. I can't put my finger on where I've come across such things before - I read too much sci-fi as a teenager, it seems - but the elements to the character and the story I dare not reveal do not strike me as that brand new.

And I do think another draft was needed to make things a lot clearer. It wasn't just part two, as further on I was left scratching my head a little. I lost confidence in Somers here, unfortunately. I still saw enough of a plot and intrigue to keep me going, and enough to make me wonder if there would be a fourth book in the series (yes, there will), but here seemed to be an author stretching himself too far.

On the positive side, there remains the fact this is neo-noir of some distinction. I didn't see much of Cates as he was in book two, as there is much less of a moral dilemma for the man. He carries on with his active, bullish, brutal way of life, but he seems to have aged another generation beyond the immediate prequel and is left hardened, ageing, more world-weary, and less worried than ever if he survives.

The fact Cates is moving on in life shows this series will not outstay its welcome - although the ending suggests the fourth in the series, announced under the title "The Terminal State", will follow immediately on. The drive of the plot(s) here is successful enough, the narration a welcome, controlled style. I just needed a lot more help in unravelling what was going on when things from the two worlds of the book combined.

This works as another self-contained book, with only rudimentary help coming from reading the first pair. It still has enough gore and language to deserve a 15 certificate.

I must thank Orbit's kind people for my review copy.

For a different gung-ho hero in a future, sci-fi world, we enjoyed Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding.

Jeff Somers' Avery Cates Series in Chronological Order

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