Book cover: Inscape - Louise CareyAn idealistic rookie may seem an odd choice to unpick a deadly corporate conspiracy, but Tanta offers the one quality InTech needs most: unshakeable loyalty. But no Corp has clean hands. Can even Tanta stomach the secrets she will uncover?

Inscape is a slick action thriller set in a corporate dystopia, the debut solo novel of Louise Carey (yes, she’s related to bestselling M R Carey). At some point in the future, nation states are a thing of the past; the Corps are everything, controlling territory and engaging in violent skirmishes to defend their competitive advantage. InTech is a major player, but feeling the pressure from a rogue subsidiary turned dangerous rival.

Tanta is a CorpWard, raised in an InTech orphanage and expected to work off the favour as the perfect employee. It’s every bit as creepy as it sounds, but not half as creepy as the fervour with which Tanta embraces it. Determined to make InTech’s security team, she’s thrilled to be shaken awake in the middle of the night and sent on her first assignment. Retrieving stolen data doesn’t sound too taxing, but the mission spirals out of control, leaving half the team dead and the data in the hands of the enemy.

Luckily for Tanta, the disaster doesn’t reflect poorly on her personally – her reward for surviving is to lead a two-person taskforce to get to the bottom of the theft. Her new partner Cole is a neuroengineer on loan from another division; an unreliable genius with self-inflicted memory loss following a careless accident in the lab.

I couldn’t help but read InTech as a villain and the CorpWards as their most dystopian creations; and I assumed from the get-go that Cole’s supposedly dubious judgment would prove an awful lot sounder than Tanta’s corporate brainwashing. This was quickly reinforced by other agents’ reactions to Tanta, who found her unswerving loyalty and unquestioning obedience as unnerving as I did. There’s no doubting she’s one of the absolute best – but her enthusiasm for following orders and her need for her mentor’s approval is chilling.

There’s always a part of me that wants to believe a narrative that is going all-out with a certain set of tropes is about to subvert them. Just once, I’d like to see a corporate utopia (now there’s a challenge for the imagination). But – minor spoiler – that’s not what Inscape is here to do. InTech is exactly what it appears to be: a ruthless corporation that values only the employees who deliver the most value; the rest are simply human resources, expendable and rarely protected in any meaningful way by their employment contracts. The crux of the narrative is whether Tanta can acknowledge what InTech is willing to do – let alone question it – as the stakes rise and the implications become ever more personal.

The world-building is often hand-waved, focusing primarily on the technology and corporate structures that propel the plot. Inscape features a neat application of augmented reality overlays, wearable tech and mind implants. Of course, the level of intrusion implied by a corporate operating system (or MbOS) in your brain is horrifying – you’re worried about what Facebook knows about you? That’s cute – but I liked that Carey gave thought to other implications too. When Tanta’s Array is disabled by an EMP, she goes offline for the first time in her life. The experience is disorienting, but it was the throwaway reference to the world ’beginning to look real again’ as her AR feed reboots and begins repopulating metadata that caught me: this is a cyberpunk world where the digital feels more real – or more meaningful – to its (corporate) inhabitants than the physical. We even get a brief glimpse of life without an MbOS when Cole interacts with the undocumented folk south of the river, but as with much of the world-building, there’s a lot left unpacked.

The concept of Sleepers – workers who operate entirely unconsciously, their mental operating systems effectively turning them into meat puppets – gave me the shudders long before the accident in the meat processing plant (content warning: it’s worse than you think). But the missing piece for me was an explanation – or even a hand wave – of why human beings were still central to manufacturing given our real world drive towards automation. I can make a heap of assumptions about cost or access to materials (or perhaps reduced employment costs in a world that effectively runs on company scrip), but I would have liked some tiny nod to acknowledge that this is the opposite outcome to our current direction of travel. It was a bit of grit that distracted me from what is otherwise one of the most hideously memorable scenes in the book.

If I found most of the characters as thin as the world-building (Tanta is by far the most interesting person on page, with Cole a poor second; everyone else services roles dictated by the plot), I still enjoyed the relationships on page. Some of these are fairly predictable: the awkward partners must learn to appreciate one another’s strengths and form an effective working relationship – but I liked that this remained platonic, and was warmed by the development of mutual concern and loyalty. Tanta’s romantic entanglement with Ruby served to underscore that even brainwashing and a corporate MbOS can’t erase emotion, although I felt the final act ducked the sharp-edged question of how the relationship can survive (I suspect this will be addressed in the sequel Outcast, just released). In spite of my regular peeving about too many POVs, I appreciated seeing Tanta from her mentor’s perspective, confirming just how much InTech – and its executives – are taking advantage of CorpWards.

Inscape is a fast, easy read that is executed with polish. I went in expecting a popcorn diversion, which is exactly what it delivers – it would make a seamless transition to the big screen, and I’d cheerfully go to see it on one. However, I always look for more than the obvious tropes if I’m to get excited – let alone invested – in this sort of story. I didn’t find it. In the end, there’s a lot of gloss but little depth (and far too much convenience, such as neuro-engineering being a catch all for Cole being an all-purpose hacker). Those more entertained by a good fight scene and less given to picking at world-building concepts will no doubt enjoy this a great deal; I found Inscape notable largely for having a young woman in its kick ass central role.