The Penal Colony

Penal Colony CoverThese vanes, as much as the crossbow itself, gave an overwhelming impression of ruthless utility. It was a horrible thing. At school, Routledge had been told about the medieval French and the disdain and resentment their use of the crossbow had excited among the English longbowmen. The history master had regarded the crossbow as unsporting, unfair, not quite cricket.

He half smiled, almost amused by the irrelevance of his upbringing. Sert was not quite cricket either.

***

There are—let’s face it—a lot of terrible self-published books out there. Smashwords, Amazon, Kobo etc. all make money regardless of whether or not the books they sell are any good, so naturally they’re not going to picky about what they offer. This is the best and the worst thing about self-publishing: it gives any book a chance. Any book at all. There are some really great ones floating around out there, but on the flipside it’s probably best not to think too much about what they’re floating in.

I hope, by producing reviews of whatever gems I find, to give these books a chance to reach more readers despite the competition. With that goal in mind, The Penal Colony might actually be an odd choice to start off with. Its author, Richard Herley, is not a new writer, and the book itself is more than twenty years old, having originally been published by Ballantine Books in 1987. I was also surprised to learn that there has been a movie based upon it, and a videogame based on that. Long story short, this is not the undiscovered treasure I thought it was at first.

But though not undiscovered, treasure it most certainly is, and I can’t help but feel that it should be more widely-known. Set on an island prison without cells or guards, the situation is not so different to that of Escape from New York. The feuds and grudges are like something out of Lord of the Flies. And yet, despite so many of the individual elements having been done before, the book itself feels unique and the action is all very real. The island, Sert, seems remarkably well researched—having both a well described landscape and a fairly solid history—but I haven’t been able to find any evidence of its existence online, leading me to believe that the entire place is probably fictitious. This, if anything, seems to make it even more remarkable.

The main character, Routledge, arrives in this man-made Hell totally unprepared, having been convicted of a crime he did not commit. If the last eight words of that sentence sound like as much of a cliché to you as they do to me, you’ll be pleased to know that this has virtually no impact on the story whatsoever, except perhaps highlighting the profound changes that his new circumstances force upon him. The island’s other inmates are not as thoroughly explored, but certainly leave an impression in the few sections during which they take centre stage. Despite not developing in the same way as Routledge, having already adapted to life on the island, these characters are certainly more charismatic. Two in particular—Martinson and Franks—are responsible for and exemplify one of the main conflicts within the novel, that between the inmates who have formed their own, new society and those who have abandoned civilisation almost entirely. On that note, it’s probably worth mentioning that this book contains quite a lot of violence and rape: if you’re under eighteen, it’s not for you.

If I was back at university, Sert’s tendency either to redeem or utterly condemn its inhabitants would probably provide a lot of material for an essay—this book definitely gives you some things to think about—but it’s hardly slow, either. Despite starting it at a time when I really didn’t want to be reading yet another novel, I found that this was one I had to finish. Based on that experience, I think the best advice I can give is this: read a sample. If you like the beginning, I’m confident you’ll enjoy the rest.

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