No Way by S.J. Morden (book review).

Last year’s Martian thriller ‘One Way’ introduced us to Frank Kittridge, a convicted murderer who was offered a one-way ticket to Mars as part of an all-convict crew who would build a base for NASA’s astronauts to use in the future. It didn’t seem such a bad deal, it would just mean Frank serving out his life sentence on the glorious expanse of Mars rather than a maximum security prison in the USA.

Until the accidents started, the mistrust and the deaths. It was an addictive and pulse-pounding book with a fiendishly plausible plot.

As ‘No Way’ begins, Frank is alone on Mars, the only survivor of the inhuman plot by technology corporation XO to win the Mars contract and secretively make use of disposable, unknown convicts. Now Frank has to face loneliness, the haunting memories of his erstwhile fellow convicts and the prospect of maintaining a habitable base single-handedly. The NASA astronauts are on their way and Frank has to figure out how he is going to survive, explain his situation to the new arrivals and somehow get back to Earth. His situation seems as bleak as that faced in ‘The Martian’, which is slyly referenced early on in the book, but with a whole different set of problems to be overcome.

As with the first book, the prose is effortlessly smooth, eschewing technical and scientific explanations as Frank, whose background is in construction, methodically goes through the routines of survival by rote without necessarily understanding how or why things work. It makes him an eminently human and relatable character, struggling with his own lack of understanding, haunted by his past and struggling to cope with the enormity of what has happened to him.

There’s a constant ratcheting of tension throughout the book as Frank stakes his survival on a deal with XO, a deal based on mutual threats, with death from numerous sources an ever-constant threat. As XO’s secrets start to slip out and the NASA crew draw nearer, Frank comes under more and more pressure to not only survive but to hold himself together emotionally and psychologically.

The hope of seeing his son again one day is always in the back of his mind, fading in and out of focus as his situation by turns becomes more hopeless and then edges back from despair. I enjoyed the way that the grandeur and wonder of Mars quickly lost its lustre and the scenery became mundane as Frank settled into the routine of his existence. Even the constant risk of death became second nature as he went about his routines of maintaining the habitat.

S.J. Morden has created a classic character in Frank Kittridge and accomplished the difficult task of following up his first book with an equal taut and gripping thriller. I’ve definitely enjoyed both books and I’ll be eagerly awaiting his next.

Gareth D Jones

March 2019

(pub: Gollancz, 2019. 371 page enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-1-473-22259-5)

check out websites: www.gollancz.co.uk and www.orionbooks.co.uk

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