Review: Nowhere / Author: Jon Robinson / Publisher: Puffin / Release Date: July 4th
Imagine waking up in a remote prison with no recollection of how you got there or indeed of the crime that bought your ticket. Imagine having all contact with the outside world severed. Imagine that you’re not alone, and that you have ninety-nine fellow prisoners equally as scared, confused and angry as you.
Such is the high-concept premise of Nowhere, the debut novel of British writer Jon Robinson. A blend of conspiracy thriller, prison novel and dystopia, the book tracks the adventures of a group of teenagers who find themselves the unexpected inmates of an unnamed detention centre in the middle of a forest.
It’s a well-paced thriller, confidently plotted and wonderfully controlled. Backstory is provided through a series of flashbacks that offer hints as to the reason why these teenagers are being gathered up without ever giving the reader the full picture and keeping us guessing beyond the final page. There are hints of special abilities and dark forces at work, but they are all presented impressionistically, which helps to sustain the feeling of dread and allows the reader to share the characters’ confusion. The ending feels more like the closing of a section than the climax to a novel, but that is most likely intentional as it will take several novels to fully explore all the hidden connections.
The prison makes a fantastic setting, not merely because of its mysterious nature, but also its potential familiarity to the novel’s younger readers. The enforced conformity and requirement to attend ‘lessons’ (actually brainwashing sessions) will appeal to the anti-establishment tendencies of any youngster who has spent time daydreaming their way out of the classroom window. The guards’ use of the ‘ibis’, a special taser that knocks its victims unconscious while zapping a little of their memory away, is a marvellous device that keeps the threat relatively bloodless while playing into the novel’s amnesiac theme.
Robinson’s teenage characters are a spirited bunch, if a little thinly drawn. On occasion, the central quartet, particularly the two girls, Elsa and Jes, blend into one. He is better with his villains, of whom there are several, including brutal prison wardens, a possibly treacherous inmate and best of all, James Felix, a sinister plutocrat who may or may not be running the whole country through an organisation called the Pledge. It’s interesting that the character with the least power, aside from the beleaguered parents, is the Prime Minister, a man subject to the determination of the shadowy cabal that really run things. It’s very fertile ground for conspiracy theories and an excellent foundation for a series of thrillingly sinister novels.