It’s 2049 and the antiquated penal system is a thing of the past. The incarceration of prisoners has been outsourced to Hypnos, a corporation charged with the task of placing and maintaining inmates in a hibernative slumber for the duration of their respective sentences. Washington D.C.’s maximum security lock-up, a.k.a. the sugar cube, houses some of the most world’s most dangerous – and inconvenient, because it turns out that a number of those in deep sleep stasis are actually political prisoners or individuals whose only crime was to piss off the wrong people. Among those special cases is the enigmatic Eliot Russo, a man who has spent some fifteen years in the sugar cube and may hold the key to upending the corrupt system.
Three lawyers – Laurel Cole, Bastien Compton and Raul Osborne – are engaged by a mysterious benefactor and charged with the task of springing Russo. In order to gain entrance to the high security complex, however, they must enter it as prisoners. Stripped, sedated, and placed in stasis, they become inmates of the sugar cube – until eventually released by a mole working on the inside. Two survive the shock to their systems. One does not. With time ticking down, the survivors must locate Russo and effect a hair-raising escape that sees them effectively flushed and deposited into the city’s meandering sewer systems. From there, they must struggle to stay alive, protect their charge, and remain one step ahead of their enemies: Hypnos, Homeland Security, and a cool and calculating mercenary named Nicola Masek.
One of the things I dislike about cyber-thrillers are their emphasis on overly complicated technology. More often than not, the plot and characters take a back seat to painstakingly detailed accounts of the futuristic gadgets and gizmos at the heart of the stories. What you end up with is a narrative that is all surface, technically engaging, but ultimately unsatisfying and, dare I say it, pretty damn boring. The Prisoner, however, succeeds in creating an intricate yet fascinating world of technological marvels. Author Carlos J. Cortes does an admirable job of walking that fine line between techy and true, crafting a world that is at turns innovative, intricate, and utterly enthralling. The futuristic elements that run through the novel are impressive in their scope and specifications, spectacular inventions just one or two steps removed from our present reality, and while intrinsic to the plot, they never overshadow the true driving force of the narrative: its well-defined characters.
While I’ll admit to occasionally becoming lost in some of the peripheral players, the main characters commanded my attention throughout. I was invested in not only our heroine, but even a couple of the villains as well. The opportunistic Nicola Masek, in particular, stood out as one of those immensely appealing personalities you would happily follow into his own series. Much of the appeal of these characters stems from Cortes’ knack for turning presumptions and initial expectations on their head, adding layers through backstory, twists, and turns that will have the reader constantly questioning motives, allegiances, even their own perceptions. There were a number of times throughout that I actually understood, even sympathized with the bad guys – and that’s a rarity in fiction.
Tautly plotted and quickly paced, it’s one of those books you have a hard time putting down once you get going. Cortes’s prose style is delightful in its ability to wholly subsume the reader. My favorite sequence involves the escape through the Washington sewer system, an account so harrowing in its rich and disturbingly comprehensive that I will no doubt remember it years from now – and wince. It elicited a visceral reaction similar to what I experienced reading Stephen King’s awesomely disturbing A Very Tight Place, a story about a guy trapped in a toppled outhouse. !!!
Top marks for this cyber-thriller. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I already went out and picked up Cortes’s first book, Perfect Circle.
What did everyone else think?
And, while you’re thinking, start posting your questions for author Carlos J. Cortes!
Still on the fiction front, editor Lou Anders has forwarded me the final cover for that superhero anthology I’ve been talking about forever (mainly because I have a short story in the line-up). Here it is –
Those of you paying attention may have noticed a difference between the previous version and the final pictured above. Yep, the anthology has been retitled, from With Great Responsibility to Masked. We’ve got a release date of July 20, 2010. Available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Masked-Lou-Anders/dp/1439168822/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273542065&sr=8-6
Lou’s been a busy boy. He’s also got another anthology (this one co-edited with Jonathan Strahan) coming out in July as well –
And, no, your eyes do not deceive you. The collection includes an original story from, among others, one of my top five favorite authors (and Baron Destructo passing acquaintance) Joe Abercrombie! You can get your copy here: http://www.subterraneanpress.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=strahan01&Category_Code=PRE&Product_Count=28
I remembered to bring in the ice cream I made yesterday. Sort of. I only brought one flavor – and, if you talk to Carl, he’ll tell you it was the wrong one. I forgot the Vanilla with Shaved White Chocolate and Milk Chocolate Flakes. However, I DID remember the Sweet Corn with Cheddar Chips. Those brave enough to sample it ended up in two camps: the “This is delicious camp!” (led by Ashleigh who had seconds) and the “I can’t get the taste out of my mouth!” camp (led by Carl). I liked it, but I enjoy the unusual – and this was mighty unusual: creamy, crispy, sweet, and salty!