The Glass Prison

by Jac Rayner

Big Finish Productions
"The Glass Prison" has been hailed by some as the best Benny book in the world ever. Paul Cornell cited it as the masterpiece that more than makes up for less successful books earlier in the range. It's supporters put it up against "Human Nature", "Just War", "Dead Romance" and "Time and Relative" as among the best Who/Who-related prose of all time.

I do not know why it has this magnificent reputation.

"The Glass Prison" is a below average book. There are a few high points, but plenty more low points and I am utterly bemused how this exercise in mediocrity
gained any reputation at all.

The story is told in the first person by Benny. Virgin did much in the New Adventures with this form, experimenting with Benny's use of her familiar diaries. Several Virgin Benny books have very sophisticated first person narrative forms, notably Lawrence Miles' "Down" and "Dead Romance". "The Glass Prison" does not. The use of first person narration in "The Glass Prison" seems entirely to allow endless rambling on Rayner's chosen topic, a format that grew tiresome during "The Squire's Crystal" and is little better here.

For a short novel, it is surprising how much it can drag on. As with "The Squire's Crystal" and "Earthworld" before it, one wonders whether Rayner would have been better working in novella form, not that Rayner seems to have any love for the novella form.

"The Glass Prison" is a book of two halves... or maybe one half and two quarters. The first half of the book rambles on and on. I don't think anyone ever mentioned the maxim 'show, don't tell' to Rayner for Benny's first person narration saps any drama out of the story with endless wittering. Any subtlety is lost as Benny points out everything two or three times. It's in the third quarter of "The Glass Prison" that the book finally comes to life with more actually happening, more shown than told. Here is the good novella struggling to get out. There is a real sense of excitement, of a story evolving out of the characters' actions. However, just as I was really getting into the book, it goes spectacularly pear-shaped. While the first half is inoffensive, the final quarter is tosh. The plot is horrendously contrived, yet still makes no sense. I will consider a few of the more bizarre events in the spoiler section below.

So, the plot is nonsense, the drama contrived... what about the humour? Well, jokes aplenty as a Grel interprets common sayings literally. Oh, how I never came anywhere near laughing...

Were "The Glass Prison" a first novel in a new series, one might be generous and describe it as "promising". As what will probably be the last ever Benny novel, it is a sad end to a series that gave us books like "Beyond the Sun", "Ghost Devices", "Walking to Babylon", "Dead Romance" and "Tears of the Oracle".

By the way, someone who works as an editor should be deeply embarrassed to make the commonest spelling mistake around: writing "Am I loosing it?" instead of "Am I losing it?" (p. 83).



The Imperator of the Fifth Axis ends up posing as a doctor and happens to be able to perform a caesarian section. Convenient. A prison riot is completely ignored by the authorities: something about the emergency system in the prison stopping any communication to the outside, so when something goes wrong, nobody will find out... huh?

So, there's this prison riot and the entire Fifth Axis, who we have been told are perfectly willing to butcher people mercilessly, are unable to subdue the prisoners. And then when the prison collapses, the entire force trying to re-take the planet are killed and our intrepid heroine, baby and hangers-on can just walk away. And on p. 188: "Reports came in [...] Of the upper echelons desperately calling upon their troops for protection, only to find they'd all been sent to the Glass Prison - and we knew from first hand experience that there wouldn't be many left to respond to the calls." So the entire military force occupying this strategic planet—possibly the entirety of the Fifth Axis forces—was sent to a prison riot (and were then unable to get very far against the prisoners and then all got killed). And to top it all off, this grand—if nonsensical—defeat of the Fifth Axis is apparently to be reversed for the forthcoming "Life During Wartime" anthology.

Plotting has always been Rayner's weakest point. People come and go to generate artificial cliffhangers throughout the book. Benny loses her baby to the cult leader, Wolf, at the end of chapter 16. And the exciting resolution of this drama is... that Wolf hands her the baby back as soon as she turns up. Gosh, talk about a tense struggle against the odds. Or, Benny is going to die after the caesarian section... and so Sophia conveniently turns up with a doctor. Oh, and then the baby's screams are conveniently able to destroy the whole building. The bad plotting evinces itself not just in these contrived events. I have already remarked on the pacing, while chapter 15 begins with an exceedingly long infodump as Sophia explains the plot to us.

We are fed umpteen pointless references to obscure and boring elements of Benny continuity. The sheer number of references to "Oh No, It Isn't!" was startling. The surprise reference to "Sanctuary" is utterly underwhelming. Meanwhile, what would seem more obvious references to the Gods arc are never voiced. One egregious example of continuity is the appearance of Benny's father on p. 198. Kate Orman wrote a whole book about finding him, so Rayner decides to bring him back and resolve any emotional issues in a paragraph.

The book does not even remember what it is meant to be about. One theme appears to be trust, but has Benny been too trusting or insufficiently trusting? On p. 189, Benny says, "I mean sodding off on my own right at the beginning of all this. I need to trust other people more; to allow myself to rely on them. None of this would have happened..." Er... so what was all that stuff earlier in the book about how she had been too trusting, which is what had caused all her problems with Straklant?
(There's a certain amount of chutzpah there: taking a flaw in "The Doomsday Manuscript", Benny being unbelievably stupid, and claiming it is part of a character arc.) Or is the book meant to be about having to do terrible things? "Down" explored those issues better.

There are some good points to "The Glass Prison". Rayner's strength, seen also in "Earthworld", is in handling the gooey bits without getting too gooey. Benny's emotion comes through. The character may be boring, she may be the beneficiary of ridiculous coincidences, but there is a heart to the novel, an emotional truth, that saves it from being a complete throwaway like "The Doomsday Manuscript" or "The Gods of the Underword". The reality of pregnancy is mostly well-handled,
although the jokes get overused—shades of "The Squire's Crystal". (That said, after all the intimate details of pregnancy and childbirth, it is ages before there is any reference to feeding. The poor baby does not get fed for hours.) The central idea of a glass prison is well realised. There is the core of a powerful novel here... if you strip away the plot, the finale, the writing style...

Henry Potts, 22 Jun 03; revised 25 Dec 05

Originally posted to Jade Pagoda.

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