Reading J. Barton Mitchell’s The Razor (2018) was a lot like going to the cinema with friends to see a big-budget blockbuster of a sci-fi/horror flick: there are some interesting settings and explosive plot developments, tough-as-plasteel characters gradually reveal inner hearts of gold, shadowy figures make dubious deals while our heroes struggle valiantly against impossible odds, and the ending sets up the possibility for more of the same. It’s entertaining, even if there’s nothing all that earth-shattering, and it was relaxing to spend a few afternoons indulging the part of my brain that loves seeing stuff go boom.
11-H37, aka The Razor, is a prison planet tidally locked in orbit around a red giant star. The hemisphere facing the star is constantly blasted by radiation and is, therefore, uninhabitable; the hemisphere facing away is a frozen wasteland and is, therefore, uninhabitable. There’s a thin sliver of a green zone where the two hemispheres meet, traversable only by specialized train cars, and it’s here that the worst of the human race’s worst are sent away from polite society, breaking their backs and their spirits as they mine Xytrilium, a rare and valuable substance which “had quickly come to power the galaxy” in seemingly infinite ways “in the centuries since its discovery.” The Razor isn’t the only source of Xytrilium (often shortened to just X), but it is the purest, and to paraphrase Frank Herbert’s Dune, he who controls X controls the galaxy.
Currently, a company called Maas-Dorian controls the rights to mine X on The Razor, and brilliant engineer Marcus Flynn was Maas-Dorian’s most prized researcher up until just recently, when he was convicted of a murder he swears he didn’t commit. That single act was somehow enough to earn a fate normally reserved for the worst of the absolute worst, but he’s resourceful and has some marketable skills, and thanks to the compassion of fellow new inmate James Maddox — who’s more accustomed to being on the other end of the prisoner-guard power dynamic, and is burdened with a potentially lethal backstory — Flynn has a good idea for how to stay alive long enough to clear his name.
Unfortunately, the universe has its own plans, and a protocol called the Lost Prophet is activated, sending The Razor into chaos as prisoners are set free en masse and security personnel are either evacuated or slaughtered in the ensuing riots. A mysterious figure directs Flynn to flee to a faraway facility, but then an EMP is deployed from orbit, which renders unshielded technologies unusable. Flynn, then, is forced to rely on the assistance of a fellow prisoner, Key, as beautiful as she is deadly. Meanwhile, Maddox finds himself in the company of a beautiful-but-emotionally-damaged doctor, Raelyn, who harbors her own secrets about why she’s on The Razor. Mitchell’s characters aren’t terribly complicated, and they fall prey to stock characterization and inevitable pair-bonding for reasons that seem engineered to suit the expectations of the formula rather than organic interest or affection. The eventual discussions of backstory and motivation went as expected, as well, though there are some delightfully sociopathic characters introduced in the second act, while some of The Razor’s nefarious underbelly is explored, who I hope will receive more attention should Mitchell explore some interesting final-act plot threads in a subsequent novel or two.
Sadly, The Razor doesn’t make much use of The Razor itself. Most of the novel takes place in subterranean tunnels and passageways, warehouse-style buildings, or within train cars, all of which could easily be anywhere from Earth to Ganymede to Salusa Secundus to Omicron Persei 8. And while the subterranean portion of The Razor is claustrophobic, I was disappointed to not spend more page time exploring the unique geography and harsh conditions of the surface world these characters are all confined on, or the prison facilities and mining operations which define this planet’s significance to the rest of the galaxy. Again, the ending leaves open possibilities for more adventures, and I hope Mitchell follows through on them.
Even though I generally had a good idea of what lay in store from one chapter to the next, The Razor’s propulsive prose kept me entertained, and now that the bedrock’s been established, I’m curious to see where the story goes from here.