Reviewed by: Brandon Nolta, Pacific Book Review
The trouble with dystopias is that, on certain fundamental levels, they tend to be unsustainable. Through inherent instability, the surging need to be free within the human animal or simply not taking into account certain aspects of human nature, dystopic societies in fiction tend not to be terribly functional in the long term. Preston Fleming understands this, and in his chronicling of Frank Werner’s adventures in Star Chamber Brotherhood, set in the same universe as his novel Forty Days at Kamas, he details with a confident hand the many ways in which dictatorships and empires fall.
As the novel begins, Frank – who survived the rebellion at the Kamas correctional camp and was eventually given amnesty – is carving out a comfortable life for himself in 2029 Boston. A bar owner by trade and bootlegger by necessity, Frank has learned to live in the margins of legal society, and has even found love. Not everything is perfect, as indicated by his ongoing search for the daughter he lost track of years before, but things are going as well as could be expected, until an old friend from his Kamas days appears with orders left over from his days as part of the prisoners’ government. The warden of the Kamas camp has taken a high-ranking federal job in Boston, and Frank’s orders are simple: kill the former warden for his crimes against the prisoners. However, while his orders are simple, the task isn’t, and Frank finds himself and his collected teammates tested in unanticipated ways.
For fans of Fleming’s previous work, there’s good news to be had; the author manages to skillfully weave in the political content of his previous work but in a less obtrusive fashion. Parallels to Soviet society are explicitly drawn in Fleming’s depiction of Unionist America, but he does so without belaboring the point, choosing to reveal information more via background sketches or quick dialogue than with infodumps or excessively on-the-nose quotations. In addition, Werner is a more dynamic protagonist than Forty Days at Kamas’ Paul Wagner; principled but willing to work hands-on, capable and smart, Werner makes things happen instead of allowing events to happen around him, making his adventures inherently more involving. However, not everything Fleming touches on in his previous work functions as smoothly; the occasional touches of mysticism and religious experience in Forty Days are expanded on in Star Chamber to the plot’s detriment, as certain aspects of the plot are advanced through vague metaphysics instead of concrete action or as a result of certain principles. Fleming takes care not to lay it on too heavily, but given the rigorous thought and construction evident in the rest of the book, the metaphysical elements here smack of authorial handwaving instead of legitimate narrative construction.
Even so, despite the occasional misstep, Star Chamber Brotherhood remains a solid piece of politically charged entertainment, built around an engaging protagonist and a tightly machined plot that moves smoothly toward a well-earned resolution.