elf: Red & blue faces (Face Off)
[personal profile] elf posting in [community profile] sps
I was given a copy of this to read & review, and while it's been on my mind, it's taken me a long time to get around to it. It occurs to me that that's worth mentioning--months later, I'm still thinking about this book, mulling over scenes in my mind, contemplating how the characters would react in other situations. This one set down roots and sunk in deep.

From the description at Amazon: Three people lie in a prison cell. One is a murderer. Can his companions help him unlock the door to his own mind before his unreasoning rages claim their lives. The Hour before Morning explores a distant future in which the human heart is much the same. The Ash’torians see their conquest of the Outliers as a triumph of civilization. The Outliers see it as servitude. Their resistance takes many forms, from non-violence to terrorism. Yet one thing remains constant: though lives are shattered, compassion endures.

I love cave!fic. And prison!fic. This is prison!fic, which I think of as a subgenre of cave!fic. (However, this is not slash.) I love finding out how much worldbuilding and character development an author can do in a tiny setting. Three people locked in a box together, with no reason to like or even tolerate each other, except for not having anyone else available, probably for the rest of their lives. The human drive for social connections is a strong one; faced with a choice of "get along, or don't; nobody outside of your cell cares," they find reasons, or at least excuses, to be civil to each other.

The Hour Before Morning depicts an intersteller empire from the point of view of a tiny handful of members (or outcasts) of that empire, and it does so without playing "as you know, bob" games. The backstory and worldbuilding come naturally from the characters' discussions and memories. The interactions between characters were solid and intriguing enough that I couldn't decide what I wanted more: whole prequel stories about each of the characters and their families and friends, or an opportunity for the three of them to meet and interact in a different setting entirely. (So please, someone read this and start writing the "We're In A Band" AU.)

I don't want to give out details that would spoil the story. The "what happened" parts are all crucially entangled with character development; when your life is reduced to a few meters' space, every event becomes meaningful. The intensity of their day-to-day life is so stark that the dreams and flashbacks feel like a cleansing breeze, a broadening of cramped space... until the reader realizes that it's all in their heads, and that part's all gone now; there's only this cell and the three of them.

I will be seeing flashes of these characters in people I meet for years. And that, too, is not a comfortable realization; this is not a light-and-fun read, and the characters aren't noble heroes. Neither is it all dark and moody; there are bright spots, and a kind of peace, and a great many epiphanies--which, juxtaposed with the setting, bring a strain of irony to the situation.

The story deals with the ethics of psychic powers (and while those are fairly limited IRL, the ethics of manipulation and control are very applicable today), the balance between rage and self-control, and tangles of love, grief, and pride. With such a limited setting, there's no *escape* from the characters and their personal issues, no way to skip over the awkward aspects of communication and growth. This is not always a comfortable story, but I found it a very compelling one.
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