Book cover: Fellside - M R CareyJess Moulson accidentally killed the wrong person. Wracked by guilt, she’s already on hunger strike when she’s sent to high-security prison Fellside to serve her sentence. But the dead need Jess Moulson’s help, and she’ll have to face her demons if she’s going to atone for her sins.

I need to come clean right up front: I don’t like prison dramas or crime dramas. I didn’t watch The Sopranos, I don’t watch Orange is the New Black, and I basically avoid the genres like the plague. But this is M R Carey, and I loved The Girl With All the Gifts, so I made an exception.

I think I expected Fellside to err more on the side of supernatural shenanigans than on violent lifers and corrupt prison guards being awful to each other. While there’s a huge supernatural element to the story (and it’s gripping), there’s just as much page time given over to the ins and outs of drug running in G Block. Crucially, the outcomes of the novel are driven almost entirely by the real/physical world goings-on, which meant I found myself gritting my teeth at the finish.

The core questions of the novel are whether Jess did, in fact, commit murder (is it murder if you didn’t intend to kill your victim? Apparently so, as long as you had intent to kill somebody), and whether or not her ghost is a benign psychosis protecting her from her own suicidal guilt. It’s terribly comforting to be told you didn’t accidentally kill a child, and he’s very insistent.

This had me all sorts of interested. I enjoy a well-crafted story that has you guessing what’s real, and the very real threat of her prison environment (nobody likes a kiddy killer) provided more than enough tension to propel the story along. By the time she’s learning to step into her dreams and explore the world of the dead (or is it?), I was absorbed.

Unfortunately,  I had no taste for the characters inhabiting the prison environment or the stories told through them. It’s perhaps a bit rich for a self-declared non-participant in the genre to declare that they all felt like archetypes, but… they did.

On the prison staff side, we had the self-promoting governor who turned a blind eye to difficult situations he couldn’t control; the well-meaning but compromised staffer; the kind one (who can be threatened to control the well-meaning one); and the utterly corrupt warden who is part of a drug smuggling ring. Perhaps the most interesting was the nurse who hated Jess as a child killer, but couldn’t quite bring herself to kill her when she was at her mercy in the infirmary – yet her seething guilt was also the least well-written perspective in the novel, and I never quite believed in her.

The inmates include the drug queenpin who uses sex to get what she needs, and her insanely violent henchwomen; these are original only because on this occasion they’re all women. Jess’s cellmate Lorraine Buller was one of the few characters who came to life for me, but she’s also entirely peripheral – giving Jess the odd bit of useful advice (‘Let them beat you; they’re going to anyway, and the sooner you let them the sooner it’ll stop’) and largely keeping her head.

I had some hope that the story would extend to looking at the nature of running prisons for profit, but in the end this wasn’t particularly relevant and didn’t get explored. Instead, we got Harriet Grace’s ongoing attempts to embroil Jess as a drug mule, and Jess’s wavering resolve to atone for her sins by Doing Good (without being killed for it, as that would stop her helping her ghostly friend). It all felt a bit by the numbers, and it wasn’t my kind of maths.

While The Girl With All the Gifts reeled in most of the tropes in the zombie playbook, it managed to subvert enough of them to feel fresh. Perhaps I’d think the same of Fellside if I liked prison drama. Your mileage may vary.

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I received a copy of Fellside from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.