Rating: 2 out of 5
NOTE: There are some spoilers in this review, mostly for the first half of the book.
In Jordon K. Stephens’s H-311, an innocent man–Austin Russel–is sent to prison for murder and cannibalism. He becomes a part of an experiment meant to use a simple pill to inflict punishment on prisoners. When several of those prisoners go up in literal flames, Austin begs a friendly guard, Bryan Keith, to help him.
First, I have to say that the book’s description on Amazon fails in one spectacular way: this book does not belong to the genre it pretends to be. The first part of it is as indicated above–a sort of sci-fi-tinged horror–then it turns into a science fiction time travel story. Seriously. I’m telling you this because often readers are very particular about what sort of genre they’re in the mood to read, and being coy about genre like this can lead to very unhappy readers who feel like they’ve been the victim of a bait-and-switch. It also means the two parts of the book feel discordant with each other.
There’s way too much rumination in this book. There are literal paragraphs spent on Austin thinking about the paint on the walls of the prison, so it’s actually less interesting than watching paint dry. This early part of the book seemed to last forever because so much of it was just in Austin’s head. When I was one-third of the way through the book, the only reason I kept reading was because I wanted to see what would be different about Austin taking the pill.
There are two different first-person point-of-view characters, which is highly confusing. Both Austin and Bryan get to be first-person perspective narrators. It would have been much easier to adjust to and keep track of who’s speaking if they’d been either both third-person, or one first-person and one third-person.
Some of the details don’t entirely make sense. When Austin arrives at the prison, there’s no record for him, but there is a record of someone else. The guy checking him in is just like, oh, clerical error, I’ll just fix it manually. Which… what? Why would someone completely ignore the fact that they might have the wrong guy? And wouldn’t they have a picture on file of the man who was supposed to be there? I also never understood why the mad scientist in charge of this experiment–Dr. Asmodeus Abigor–was working on this particular experiment. At one point they hand-wave the idea that this experiment and others somewhat like it are being used to create some sort of super-soldier, but a) that makes no sense at all from the nature of the experiments, and b) it’s so briefly brought up and then ignored that it seems like a hasty bit of spackling over a big ol’ plot hole.
There’s a depiction of a gay man in the prison that is… dubious. Austin describes his look and behavior as “only a certain kind of person … The kind that doesn’t mind being the prison sex toy.” (And how would he know that, never having been in a prison before?) And of course the gay man keeps hitting on Austin despite knowing he isn’t interested–a bit of behavior that almost never happens in real life but that many straight men seem to be terrified by the very idea of.
There’s a bit of religion in here, which you might surmise by the fact that the pill is supposed to make people experience literal Hell on Earth. Austin and Bryan are non-religious, but both have gotcha moments where they’re suddenly converted. God is basically used as a literal deus ex machina, and the main characters become insta-Christians.
For the time travel portion of the story, it basically becomes a particularly confusing quantum physics course. Even the characters can’t figure out when they’re actually changing history versus switching timelines. The idea that they’re basically just jumping timelines when they change something is a good one, but it also makes their efforts seem less meaningful. I really did like the idea, however, that changing timelines can become addictive. That even when you’ve made a change that you like, you’ll still find little things to be different than how you remember them and you can get caught up in trying to fix them all. That made a lot of sense to me and is something I’ve not seen before; unfortunately it’s the only thing in the book that really appealed to me.
Content note: a whole lot of burning alive.