Inscape (London: Gollancz, 2021) is Louise Carey’s first time writing solo, a move away from the watchtowers of Bessa and the villages of 18th-century Europe – respectively, The City of Silk and Steel (2013) and The House of War and Witness (2014), novels written by Carey with her parents Mike and Linda – to the the barbed wire and machine-gun turrets of a London that has gone through the Meltdown Wars, wars so bad (and it is ‘wars’, plural – Inscape is pregnant with backstory) that camera lenses melted and nation-states as we know them were replaced by corporate actors who now leverage technological advantage for social and economic control. Yes, the cyberpunk heart is strong in this one. And there is soul in the aesthetics: a dash of Bullfrog’s Syndicate, here; a hint of Deus Ex, there; and certainly a touch of A Ghost in the Shell. But it isn’t retro or stagey, it is just lineage; and the way the ‘scapes alter interactions both mundane («Hey, pick up some milk on your way home») or life-threatening (AR-assisted combat in the book is wickedly competent) feels both prescient and thrilling. Carey’s phoenix-from-the-ashes world can be whatever you want it to be; or, whatever your generation (some of us are old), Inscape will jack in to your cyberpunk neurons (and neuroses) and extract everything it needs.
At the core of the plot is Tanta, a well-realised rookie ICRD (InterCorporate Relations Division) operative who is paid to do pretty much whatever the corporation wants her to do. As with so many similar operatives (Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne come to mind), Tanta is a useful piece of equipment to achieve a variety of goals, to varying degrees of success (in the opening pages of the novel, there is not a lot of success). But her corporate overlords have a lot invested in Tanta and they give her a second chance. So Tanta gets a new job – undercover, across the river, with Cole, an ICRD operative with a canny knack for tech. Thence the truth begins to resolve: Tanta has been assisted by the corps to turn on and tune in, but not to drop out; she been nurtured and honed, but she hasn’t been allowed to be free. Awakening, then, is necessary, and a snappily plotted narrative takes us there with emotional twists and vigorous combat right up to a jaw-dropping cliffhanger (Please Insert Disc 2) which, like a binge-worthy season of a Netflix show or a campaign in a triple-A game, leaves us frantically tapping for more.