Considering how hackneyed it is at the start, it was a pleasure to see Michael Bowers' military SF debut bloom into a serviceable little piece of action storytelling. Prison Ship does lay the clichés on thick from square one, as we meet Cmdr. Jacob Steiner, XO aboard the U.S.S. Valiant, warship of the United Star Systems, presently engaged in a civil war against the shifty separatists of the New Order Empire. I suppose I'm betraying the fact I'm a child of the 80's that whenever I read the phrase "New Order Empire," the strains of "Blue Monday" and "Bizarre Love Triangle" went coursing through my head.
The Valiant's Captain McKillip, we are told, considers Steiner the son he never had. By page two I predicted he'd be killed, and by page eight my mad precognitive skills were confirmed. The Valiant has been sent into a trap machinated by the corrupt and treasonous Admiral Ralph Jamison, who sits on the U.S.S.'s War Council, no less. And Jamison's nefarious schemes would have remained well hidden, were it not for those meddling kids. McKillip and Steiner have been uncovering evidence of Jamison's treachery, and the admiral means to silence them. In McKillip's case, he succeeds. Steiner rather understandably loses his temper, and is thrown into prison to rot after trying to give Jamison the pounding he deserves.
In its early chapters, the novel's logic is not exactly airtight. Steiner's routine in prison is an endless exercise in trying to avoid Jamison's latest arranged attempt on his life. Considering Steiner is in prison, why Jamison would even bother is puzzling. You'd think he could just pull some strings and trump up some charges to keep Steiner there indefinitely, or even for life, where he'd be out of the way of Jamison's scheming. But if he really wanted the disgraced XO dead, well, prison guards are notoriously underpaid and corruptible, so why not just offer one an epic sum of money on the down low to tiptoe into Steiner's cell in the middle of the night and kill him then? Seems so much easier than the sort of clumsy thing Jamison actually does, which is to plant a fake inmate to start a fight in the crowded chow hall, where Steiner will have plenty of friends at his back. Seriously, an admiral ought to be able to come up with a better plan of attack than that.
Things improve when a former crewmate of Steiner's, now working as an assistant to Jamison but still personally loyal to the XO, gets Steiner transferred to the captaincy of a prison ship. The Penitentiary Assault Vessel Program offers the presumably less irascible of the U.S.S.'s inmate population a chance for some time served, if they'll do recon missions and basically act as cannon fodder. Passcodes and body tracer implants prevent said inmates from simply waving bye-bye and dashing off into the great beyond. Yes, it does require more than the average suspension of disbelief to swallow the concept — let alone that such vessels would have bars, as in saloons, on them — but once Bowers gets over his first-novel jitters and hits his stride, he ekes some entertainment value out of it all.
Bowers builds some tension as Steiner is faced with the challenge of winning the respect of his lowlife crew. Considering the previous captain was killed before the ship even left port, you can see why this would be high priority. Steiner never quite knows whom to trust, and the few crewmen he does manage to befriend all voice doubts about one another's loyalties. The newly christened Marauder has the usual suspects among its ranks. We have a reconstructed cyborg-human hybrid, Tramer, convicted for crumpling up a couple of men like candy wrappers. He presents Steiner with a fear and prejudice he must overcome (just like Ripley had to overcome her mistrust of the android Bishop in the movie Aliens). There's Daniels, the deeply religious reformed murderer who dispenses sagacity like Morgan Freeman. Bricket is the crippled and embittered barkeep and programming whiz. And Mason is the blustery, dick-swinging hotshot pilot with some Secrets of His Own. You do grow to like these stock characters, though Bowers' attempts at heavy emotional stuff, like Tramer's anguish over being abandoned by his wife and child, are facile, and result more often than not in simple mawkishness.
But to be fair, in its final third, Bowers does give the tale a welcome shot in the arm. Steiner and his dwindling coterie of allies must face down a bloody mutiny, the product of Jamison's most ambitious act of combined treason and personal vengeance yet. Readers who enjoy military SF want plenty of violent action and thrilling acts of redemptive heroism, and Prison Ship, though it seriously lacks polish overall, manages some good excitement as the climax approaches. Once Bowers matures as a storyteller a bit more fully, he'll have a better shot at climbing the milSF ranks.