Steel Frame by Andrew Skinner. Review.

Steel Frame by Andrew Skinner

Solaris Books, pb, £8.82

The opener is one of the saddest I’ve read in a long time, and it fully encapsulates the despair of the initially unnamed narrator who has been sold to a NorCol prison for so long she’s pretty sure there isn’t a key for her chains, and can’t remember either her name or her number.

This is the debut novel from South African writer Andrew Skinner, and for a first full-length work it’s impressive. ‘Steel Frame’ is a dystopian espionage thriller, so basically a little bit of everything as a fresh contribution to the mash-up concept.

Rook is sold to the NorCol corporation, a shadowy futuristic group, after her shell (a giant robot she pilots to fight other shells) is destroyed and the rest of her unit is killed. She’s eventually given another shell, Juno, as broken and beaten down as Rook herself, and this is where the action gets going.

The story is an empowering one of mutual support between Rook and Juno, centring around the truth that by being given a chance to claw your way back up from a terrible knock down, you can recover physically and emotionally. The difficulty of ensuring such a recovery the narrative tense with uncertainty, and this was as much a novel about the inner battle as about the literal (and interesting) battles between the giant robots.

The fact that this is written in the first-person adds greatly to the intimacy of this honest portrait of lost hope in the face of a disorientating imprisonment, which is followed by a journey back to personal strength through resilience and solidarity with a companion as broken as the narrator. It was a very thoughtful style of writing that gave the narrative depth.

The first-person viewpoint was absolutely the right choice for this story. I liked that it was initially non-gendered, in the sense that only slightly later did I realise the narrator was Rook, a woman. This added to the sense of ‘it could happen to any of us’ and helped make Rook sympathetic and vulnerable from the outset.

I’m not usually a reader of espionage thrillers, but I do like giving a mash up its fair hearing and this was very well written. You don’t have to be an existing fan of the genre to enjoy this book’s tight action and riveting plot, and I always appreciate it when fiction reaches out beyond its established fan base to lure in unsuspecting new readers. The excellent characterisation was the key to that achievement here.

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