Karl Drinkwater’s Hidden Solace is the third volume of the projected five-novel space opera Lost Solace series. Like its predecessors, Hidden Solace, transforms a familiar scifi trope (here, the prisoner trying to escape from an impossibly isolated and well-defended structure) into something exciting and new. The writing is riveting and intense and kept me going right up to the point where the story line took an abrupt 90 degree turn and left me hanging about the fate of the central character, Opal. So unfortunately, the novel can’t quite stand alone without moving immediately into the fourth book, Raising Solace. I think books in a series ought to bring a major beat of action to an end, naturally leaving the major arc incomplete, but this ending section just felt frustrating. As big a problem as that may be, I still loved the book and will get into the next novel in the series, Raising Solace, as soon as I can.
In the first two novels (Lost Solace and Chasing Solace), Opal set off to recover a lost ship that had entered the alien realm of Null-Space. Usually any ship that disappears into that space of unique physics is lost forever, but Opal finds a ship and recovers a sentient AI, a level seven machine, that soon undergoes, with Opal, a disastrous near-death experience. The AI is reborn in the image of Athene and becomes a constant companion and protector of Opal. Athene is also hunted by the dominating power of this universe, known as the UFS.
Opal’s real quest is to find her sister Clarissa, and by the end of the second book, Opal retrieves her sister who has been in an alien-induced stasis for the past fourteen years. The book closes with the sisters awaiting rescue by Athene on the surface of a strange planet. As we find at the beginning of Hidden Solace, however, rescue was not their fate. The third novel throws us into Opal’s prison life of routines governed by the ever-present AI known as Dulcetta. She undergoes a series of tortures devised by the insidiously brilliant Aseides, who is trying to learn the whereabouts of Athene.
As soon as I realized that the story wasn’t going to leave that prison and that scenes of torture would dominate the action, I almost put the novel aside. That just isn’t the sort of book I usually like. But Drinkwater’s eye for detail, the depth of characterization and the fact that much of the torture is psychological kept me going. The chapters from Opal’s point of view are numbered in decreasing order, as if for a countdown, adding to the movement toward a climactic moment. The story builds toward that through a series of attempted escapes, each of which teaches Opal invaluable lessons about the structure of the prison, the limitations of the AI, the stakes of success or failure for Aseides and weaknesses in the prison routines and surveillance that she can use for her next attempt.
These chapters, toward the middle of the novel, alternate with a set capturing Athene’s efforts to make contact with Opal, learn her whereabouts and stage a rescue. Her work is complicated by the interference of another AI of comparable intelligence, the egomaniacal VigMAX. He wants to dominate Athene in his twisted idea of a love relationship, and, while he at first appears as a near comical figure, his push to control threatens all of Athene’s plans.
Throughout her ordeal, Opal retains a sense of the possible. We count, with her, the number of steps it takes to circle her cell, the dimensions and structure of each fixture, the mechanism of the lift that lowers from the ceiling to take her out of the cell for interrogation sessions. And we walk the halls with her, feeling the shackles on her wrists, as she studies the level of attention and pace of her guards, notices every irregularity in the plasteen tiles covering the walls, makes mental diagrams of the hallways and the positions of surveillance cameras. Here’s an example of how her mind is always working. She deliberately staggers while being escorted down a hall and hits a wall panel.
“The panel was loose, rattled, a tiny echo to the thump. Cavities. Not mounted on solid wall, at least not here. Self-warming, probably a model of standardized metamaterial plasteen, usually used in renovations. The eight inset pins backed up that idea. On a previous journey to SSLL7 she’d noticed a faint black edge that indicated this panel wasn’t flush with the others.”(Hidden Solace, Kindle edition, location 203)
Detail by detail, Opal compiles diagrams of strengths and weaknesses in the prison. All this detail eventually comes into play as she makes one sudden move after another to overcome her captives. Each attempt gets more and more destructive as she finds her way through openings behind the tiles and gradually realizes that the prison is an old spaceship that has been repurposed to suit Aseides’ purposes.
Opal manages to turn the tables on her torturer, as she feigns cooperation and elicits valuable information from him about why he is after Athene, what failure could mean for his standing in the UFS and, always, where in this prison Clarissa might be located. These scenes are more interesting as battles of wits rather than focusing on body horror, though there is some of that as well.
Aseides is quite open about how he is trying to break her will. As he puts it, true breaking isn’t so much about torture as about taking away all hope. “Once you take away all hope you can replace it with fresh concepts, since the patient will be so desperate for something to believe in.” (Kindle edition, location 698)
What is so remarkable about Opal is that whatever physical or mental pressure or torture she undergoes, she never loses hope and is constantly planning how to use the information she gleans, even from the pain Aseides inflicts.
Hidden Solace is a powerful story, despite the strange turn the plot takes at the end. Drinkwater likes to leave readers with big questions at the endings of the books in this series, and that is a powerful motivator to dive into the next novel. But this ending didn’t square with me, though to avoid a major spoiler I can’t fully explain why. Despite that, the Lost Solace series, which includes four novellas as well as the four novels published thus far, is excellent science fiction. The first volume was a semi-finalist in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, and I hope the series gets a lot more recognition.