I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Fellside by M.R. Carey
Published by Orbit on April 5 2016
Genres: Paranormal, Mystery
The nitty-gritty: An unexpectedly entertaining and emotional story, whose prison drama and tough characters outshine the paranormal story-line.
The Girl with All the Gifts was a top ten read for me a couple of years ago, and so it was with great anticipation that I started M.R. Carey’s follow-up, Fellside. And while it didn’t completely blow me away like his first book did, by the end I was firmly convinced that Carey is such a damn good storyteller, that he could probably write about anything and make it come alive. Fellside is completely different from The Girl with All the Gifts, and the supernatural elements are much subtler and really take a backseat to the human drama. I was surprised that this didn’t bother me more, as you know most of what I read is about 90% speculative fiction. But the characters are so believable and the emotions so raw and real, that before I knew it, I was actually enjoying a story about a high security women’s prison—which is pretty much what Fellside is about.
Here’s a brief synopsis—brief, because the fewer details you know going in the, the better. Jess Moulson has just woken up in the hospital with no memory of what happened to her. She’s horrified to find she’s been severely injured, and soon finds out she sustained terrible burns to her face in an apartment fire. Even worse, everyone thinks she’s responsible for setting the fire—which killed a ten-year boy in the apartment next door. Accused of murder and with no defense, Jess soon winds up in a secluded high security women’s prison called Fellside.
Once there, Jess is faced with the grim reality of life in prison, especially since everyone knows she’s a murderer. But there is a bright spot amidst the horrors of prison violence and corruption—Jess is visited by a ghostly young boy who she believes to be Alex Beech, the boy who died in the fire. With his help, Jess may be able to uncover the truth about what really happened that fateful night.
One of the reasons this was such a page turner was that there are several mysteries going on, and Carey doesn’t give up much until the end. There’s the ongoing mystery of whether or not Jess is actually guilty of murder, a story thread that gains more and more momentum as Carey drops hints steadily from the very beginning. Many of the characters have their own secrets, one of my favorites being the mystery of what happened to Liz Earnshaw’s lover Naseem. And then there is the peculiar presence of the ghost Alex Beech and how he’s connected to the story. With so many twists and turns, secrets and lies, you’d think the story would be hard to follow, but trust me when I say it’s not.
But because Fellside is essentially about women serving time in a high security prison, you’d be right in assuming that most of the characters are hard, unhappy, and motivated by fear. I found the violence to be particularly upsetting, probably because it was real violence and not spurred on by a fantastical premise. In Fellside, the strong rule and the weak are lucky to wake up every morning. One of the subplots is about an inmate named Grace who runs a successful drug ring inside the prison, and mostly focuses on Grace’s convoluted plans to smuggle drugs from one location to the next. Pick-ups and drop-offs are fraught with terror, and you do NOT want to let Grace down. Add in corrupt prison guards and doctors, and you have one hell of a tangled web of deceit, double-crosses, and sheer edge-of-your-seat suspense.
Fellside is full of compelling characters, and despite how screwed up most of them are, it’s hard not to get sucked into the drama. However, “compelling” does not necessarily mean “likable,” and this is one of the few books I’ve read where I find it hard to come up with a character that I actually liked. I sympathized with Jess, because she can’t remember anything about the fire (she was high at the time), but did I like her? Not really. She makes some terrible decisions (one in particular is pretty horrifying, but I don’t want to spoil it for you), and makes even more enemies when she gets to Fellside. But I did admire her determination to try to help Alex, who is just as much in the dark about his past as Jess.
And talk about unhealthy relationships! This book is full of them, which is one reason I loved it so much. (Hey, it’s way more entertaining to read about messed up characters than happy ones, right?) I would have to say my favorite “unhealthy relationship” was between a Fellside doctor, Dr. Salazar (“Sally” for short) and a prison guard named Devlin. Devlin has bullied Sally into supplying him with drugs on the side, and Sally’s too scared to refuse. Their relationship is so horrid that both men secretly want to kill the other. Then there’s Devlin and Grace, the tough inmate who controls the drug ring at Fellside, who have a secret relationship but use each other to get what they want.
As for the paranormal aspects of the story, it took me a while to warm up to the idea of a ghost who is able to visit people in their dreams. Carey takes us on a metaphysical rollercoaster as Jess learns how to spirit walk with Alex into the world of dreams. If you’re a fan of that sort of story, then you’ll probably love these sections, but for me, the paranormal parts were the weakest parts, as I became much more invested in the relationships and shenanigans among the prison characters.
Until the last fifty pages or so, when Carey pulls everything together and suddenly those ghostly scenes make sense. Carey’s got plenty of surprises up his sleeves, and it doesn’t hurt that the ending was way more emotional that I was expecting. If I had to sum up my Fellside reading experience in one word it would be surprise. For a very different book from one of my favorite authors, I was surprised at how much I loved this book by the end.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.