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The Razor
by J. Barton Mitchell
Tor, $26.99, 399 pages
Published: November 2018

Dumping unwanted and troublesome members of society is a time-honored tradition, be it in floating prison barges, islands, continents, or … planets. Once you have a galactic civilization, you need planets for your troublemakers, your misfits, your embarrassments, your psychopaths. Even the ones who are geniuses. Even the ones you still need to conduct research and run experiments. 

Most especially, you need a place to send security risks, like former elite prison guard James Maddox, framed for a murder he didn’t commit because he went gunning for a supervisor who was running a slave trade racket on the side.  If there is one kind of prisoner who will be given the harshest of treatment by guards and prisoners alike, it is a former prison guard, so Maddox’s chances of surviving the first day have a lot of zeroes to the right of the decimal point.

Then there’s Marcus Flynn, the engineer who knows almost everything there is to know about the design and construction of prison planet 11-H37, aka The Razor. Turns out, he knows too much, and is making radical recommendations that are distressin’ to Management. The question is, does he know enough to guy the system, or is he going to be one more oh-so-convenient casualty of the random violence and deadly conditions of the worst habitable planet in the system?  Meanwhile, he gets to experience what he helped wrought.

The Razor has only a narrow, equatorial strip of barely habitable surface on a tidally locked planet that, like Hel of Norse mythology, presents a face of opposite extremes. One half is eye-blinding brightness, scorching sand, burning desert — and certain extremely valuable minerals that must be extracted; the other is darkness and cold and ice. Prisoners are slave labor, paying their debt to society.

One of the prisoners is Key, and when she’s not trying to protect her young cellmate Nia she’s angling for a better position in the prisoner hierarchy. Offing a designated new arrival is one way to earn perks, and Key volunteers to make the problem of one pushy, idealistic engineer go away.  The script is going fine, too, until her target opens his mouth… and starts talking sense. Key is smart enough to realize that in Marcus Flynn she has encountered something new on this hellhole — a chance to use knowledge, real knowledge, to change how things are done on The Razor.

As for Maddox, his welcome includes a trip to the infirmary, where it is oh-so-easy for staff to administer all sorts of delightful chemicals into your system, for the entertainment and amusement of one’s enemies, who, of course, have wide-screen viewing options. Raelyn, the disgraced physician assigned to The Razor, under a death sentence of her own, contamination by Slow Burn. And then she asks the question that turns to tide on this tide-locked planet. “Do you believe in second chances?”

Four people, an engineer, a doctor, a warrior and a guardian, and a terrible fifth, secreted away in the bowels of R&D, are about to irrevocably change the prison mining world of 11-H37. But first, every mechanized system on the planet goes FUBAR.

If reading The Razor reminds you of the best SF adventure film you’ve never seen, that may be because Mitchell is also a screenwriter. He is extremely effective at getting you to imagine what you are reading as if it were a movie in your mind, right down to the suspenseful shifts in POV. There is a craft to writing a well-constructed story, oh yes indeed, and Mitchell clearly knows his business.

Mitchell has been known to appear for book signings and discussion in Santa Fe, NM and elsewhere. If you are interested in xeno-biology, or social and civil engineering. I’d say this is a writer to look for. ~~ Chris Wozney

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