Break the Chains is the second in Megan O’Keefe’s “The Scorched Continent” series. I took a look at the first one a little while ago, and felt that it had a lot of potential . The sequel bears that out, bringing some damaged and delightfully convincing characters into a vividly realised world.
We’ve seen parts of the Scorched Continent before, but this instalment focuses on new environs – in particular, on a maximum security prison. The facility isn’t a day at the beach – it’s designed to hold prisoners whom the government may one day find useful, and so there’s a range from political agitators to bloody-handed killers. The surrounding environment, an island of prison-worked agriculture surrounded by rampantly shark infested waters, carries echoes of Alcatraz. The hallways seem to exude a sort of slowly boiling menace, a sense that control is allowed here, rather than assumed. In amongst casual brutality, incompetence and authoritarianism, there’s some signs of friendship and humanity. O’Keefe gives us a space filled with the potential for violence, where social groupings form and bonds strengthen – or break – under pressure.
There’s some exploration of the outer world as well – one of our protagonists spending time infiltrating a military post, or on a deserted island in the middle of a darkening sea. It’s nice to see greener pastures, after the brutal-seeming deserts of the first volume, and the variety is sufficient to keep things interesting.
From a character standpoint, we’re back with Detan, the charming, often unlucky rogue from the first book. He’s still haunted by the ability he has to cause large explosions using a fairly pervasive magical material, counting the cost of his actions, and carrying the burden of the blame. There’s a sense of self-pity to some of this, as Detan struggles to come to terms with an aspect of himself that he’d rather pretend didn’t exist – but the portrayal of a man on the edge, seeking some sort of escape and redemption, driven to action but terrified by its consequences, is very well done.
The other part of the duo is back as well. Tibs serves as Detan’s everyman, a companion there to help Detan keep himself under control. Tibs suffers the consequences of his own actions, a raw take on post-traumatic stress disorder coming through in his actions with, and sympathy for, Detan.
Alongside the dynamic duo, we spend more time with Ripka and the charmingly named “New Chum” as they infiltrate the prison. The latter has more fleshed out backgroundover the course of the text, including a few surprises. There’s a deadliness and a gentleness in his words and deeds which work wonderfully in contrast.
Ripka remains her usual self, with an iron sense of rectitude, struggling to blend into a prison population which is rather less full of moral certainty than she. She’s a delight to read though – calm, focused, but humanly prone to failure, to misjudging a situation and then competently dealing with the consequences. If Detan and Tibs are the freewheeling section, prone to great highs and lows, then Ripka and New Chum are the professionals, working their angle with care and talent to turn things around.
They are, as ever, ably assisted by an excellent supporting cast, including other users of the magical ‘Selium’, a raft of imperial troops, and a prison population and staff ranging the gamut between violent psychopaths and charming professionals. There’s a great deal on display here, and it’s great to feel the characters from the first volume being fleshed out, as we discover the layers of their personalities, their hopes, fears, dreams and nightmares.
The plot – as ever, no spoilers. It starts a little slowly, but that’s just a gentle burn. By the mid-section, as both pairs of heroes are working at their goals, there’s a sense of danger hanging over every word, a tension in each picked lock and duel. That tension reaches a crescendo by the ending – the reader left on tenterhooks. I must confess that I tore through this instalment, and I’m really looking forward to the next one.
Anyway, is this worth reading? I think you’d need to read the first book in order to fully appreciate it. But there’s a sense of more fully realised potential here – the characters are growing, and feel like they have both depth and a decent emotional weight. The world – there are hints of a far larger context and history in the background which I hope to see further explored ,but what we’ve seen is well-detailed and intriguing. The plot isn’t full tilt all the time, but manages to find a delicate balance between frenetic, explosive action, and quieter contemplative moments.
In the end, I’d say if you enjoyed the first volume, then this one will reward a reading – it’s an interesting piece of steampunk fantasy, and I’m interested to see where the series is going to go next.