In the future, London is run by giant corporations. Less like a city and more like a series of campuses, everyone who lives in the city is affiliated with one “Corp” or other, while those who live outside in the Unaffiliated Zone are seen as outcasts at best, dangerous savages at worst. London is a city at war, as two of the largest corporations – InTech and Thoughtfront – are caught in a race to develop the most cutting-edge products. Tanta, an InTech CorpWard (an orphan taken in by the corporation), is assigned to retrieve stolen data that has been sent to the Unaffiliated Zone. Her first real mission after years of training ends with three of her team dead and the data still in the wild. Tanta is assigned a new partner – a middle-aged man named Cole who has lost most of his memories but who is still considered a technical genius – and charged with finding the stolen data. As the stakes are raised and people die, Tanta and Cole make a horrific discovery about Tanta’s programming, and come to the conclusion that there is a mole at the top levels of InTech’s management structure.
From the moment we meet Tanta it is clear where her loyalties lie. A kind word from her mentor causes elation beyond belief, and it quickly becomes obvious why: Tanta is a ward of InTech; they have taken her in as a young child, given her food and shelter and trained her to become an agent for their espionage arm, the ICRD. Tanta is loyal to a fault – demonstrated when she almost chokes a more senior agent to death at the instruction of her manager – and keeps her emotions in check so that she seems cold and calculating to those around her. We only really see the real Tanta when she’s with Reet, her best friend and lover, with whom she can let down her guard. Her eventual pairing with Cole seems cliched at first, the stereotypical “Odd Couple,” but as the story progresses and their relationship matures, it becomes clear that nothing is likely to work out how we expect it to.
In Carey’s high-tech world, London is almost unrecognisable. The world has survived some unspecified Meltdown and the corporations have taken control. People employed – or, in many cases, owned – by the corps are connected to the world around them via the technology embedded in their brains: their Inscapes provide everything a smart phone provides to today’s population, and much more. Around them, the city crumbles, made palatable by the augmented reality layer that their Inscape superimposes over it, creating a very subtle distinction between those who are “affiliated” and those who aren’t. As Tanta and Cole navigate this brave new world, it’s difficult not to make comparisons with Orwell’s 1984, and many others of its ilk. This is dystopia at its most insidious: disguised as utopia.
Inscape is difficult to categorise. Part post-apocalyptic dystopia, it’s also an old-fashioned hard-boiled crime thriller. Tanta and Cole are brilliant protagonists and much of the joy to be derived from this excellent novel comes from their ever-evolving relationship and the ways in which they change each other. Carey manages to build and maintain the tension, making huge chunks of the story fly by in the blink of an eye as we try to satisfy the ever-present need to know how it’s all going to turn out. And it all turns out surprisingly well for the reader, if not necessarily for the characters. There are many revelations to be made as the story approaches its climax and, with a single exception, each one comes as a surprise, a punch to the gut for our protagonists, and also for us, the readers. The first of a proposed trilogy, Inscape opens the door wide for book two, then abruptly leaves us wanting more. What more could a reader want?
Inscape is Louise Carey’s debut solo novel, having previously written two novels with her parents, Mike and Linda. It’s an accomplished first novel, and it’s clear how much effort has gone in to creating this new world and the background stories and, most importantly, the characters. A handful of pages is all it takes to get hooked, and Tanta and Cole worm their way inside to take up residence in your imagination, like all the best characters. Highly original and brilliantly plotted Inscape is a tense, stylish and all-out fun thriller that will keep hold until the last page, then leave you pining for the next instalment. Louise Carey proves that she has what it takes to go solo and immediately cements her position as a writer to watch. This is one you’ll want to be on from the outset, so don’t miss it.