Jeff Somers

Orbit

ISBN: 978-1-84149-705-1

Publisher: Orbit

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

The Eternal Prison is the third in the Avery Cates series, preceded by The Electric Church and The Digital Plague. Like the first in the series, The Eternal Prison is a moderate success – enjoyable but not particularly memorable.

Avery Cates is a hitman, and as the novel opens he is being rounded up and sent to Chengara Penitentiary.  It’s not immediately clear how personal his arrest is, as he seems to have been caught up in a generalised raid. However, it soon appears that even if he was arrested more or less by accident, he is most definitely of interest to the authorities. It takes quite a long time for the reader to find out why, because the story jumps back and forth in time – it’s maybe half way through the novel before the two timelines come together and we have a very clear idea of what’s happened to Avery and why.

In the meantime, we spend time in Chengara with Avery. It’s not a nice place and much about the way it operates seems strange to Avery. After a while he notices that none of the prisoners seem to stay long; although they were told they’d never leave Chengara, familiar faces quietly disappear and are never seen again. This adds fuel to Avery’s intention to escape and before long he’s thoroughly entangled in another prisoner’s escape plot.

Simultaneously, we’re following a thread where Avery is hired to kill Dick Marin, the man in charge of the security forces. In earlier novels Avery has accidentally helped Marin engineer a situation which essentially allowed Marin to literally take over the world. Now a lot of people want him dead – including Avery, who isn’t afraid to take on this seemingly impossible task.

The Eternal Prison has a lot of action in it and it’s well choreographed and well written. It’s believable, easy to follow, and generally reasonably exciting. Somers’ has underpinned this with a solid plot. The plot is quite complex – although this doesn’t become fully evident until late in the novel – but it all flows together well and fits tightly. It’s interesting and will keep most readers engaged; despite the complexity it’s easy enough to follow as it unfolds. This plotting is one of the novels’ best aspects.

When reviewing The Electric Church I noted that some aspects of the world did not seem particularly well worked out and as a result, I found it somewhat unconvincing.  Somers’ appears to have tried to fill some of the holes in his worldbuilding, but I still didn’t find it convincing – it did come across as a bit of a patch-up job rather than something well worked out in advance and indeed some aspects contradicted things said earlier in the series. For example, in The Electric Church, employment was presented as something so scarce and so low-paying that it was a form of entertainment for the rich. Yet here, a character talks about all children being tested in early adolescence and assigned to work as a consequence of the testing. It didn’t quite jibe.  The background to the world presented in the series is still shaky and unconvincing.  However, if you don’t think about it too hard and sort of treat it as a movie set, then it’s realistic enough to carry you through the novel.

The greatest weakness for me was the character of Avery Cates. He is central to the novel, but I found him difficult to empathise with and a fairly shadowy character overall. This novel worked better than the first, largely because the action was so relentless that it was easier to focus on that rather than Avery. Also, he was given a more compelling reason for his actions in this novel, so it was a lot easier to get caught up alongside him. However, I still found Avery a little unformed and hard to believe in.  Nor were any of the other characters strongly drawn; they felt two-dimensional.

This was more clearly a science fiction novel than the first, which appeared to be trying to blend hardboiled detective fiction with science fiction.  I didn’t feel that it worked all that well; here Somers’ appears to have moved away from the tone of the first novel and focused on telling a good story – which happens to be largely science fictional in its tropes – rather than emulating any particular style. It’s given him a stronger narrative voice and I think makes for a better novel.

In all, this was an enjoyable novel, well plotted and well written. The characterisation is weak, but as the characters are propelled through good action scenes by a strong plot, it’s not too hard to overlook this while reading. The Eternal Prison is a pleasant way to pass the time, but it’s not a memorable novel.  It’s unlikely to stick your mind for any length of time.