Big Finish
The Glass Prison

Author Jacqueline Rayner Cover image
ISBN 1 903654 41 6
Published 2002

Synopsis: Once you're inside the glass prison, there's nowhere to hide. They can see your every movement. They control you. You're going to be watched for the rest of your life, wherever you go, whoever you are. Even if you're a professor of archaeology. Even if you're a friend of the famous Irving Braxiatel, and you've written several popular coffee-table books. Even if you're pregnant.


A Touch of Glass by Robert Smith? 24/6/02

When Big Finish took over the Benny range from the fabulous Virgin output, my feelings were roughly akin to the idea of Irwin Allen producing a new series of Doctor Who. It's great that someone's keeping the flame alive, it's just not so clear that these are the people I want in charge of one of my favourite series. The publishing record thus far did not inspire confidence: with shortened page counts and mostly mediocre, largely forgettable books, it seemed my initial feelings were right. Jac Rayner's previous Benny book did not inspire much confidence either, being full of immature bodily function jokes which seemed to sit awkwardly with the in-depth character examination it was apparently aiming at.

I mention all this because it's the last negative word I have to say in this review.

The Glass Prison is a fantastic book. It surpasses the previous Big Finish novels without breaking a sweat. It's a big novel, with lots of important stuff going on, rounding off a loose story arc, but it's also incredibly human and touching. It's probably the best Benny book since Dead Romance - and that included Tears of the Oracle. It's that good.

I cannot rave enough about this masterpiece. From the very first page this hooked me with a moving and tragic setup -- and I would probably have been happy to read an entire novel based on the introduction. The book gets much, much better, but I just wanted to mention how great it starts as well. The first person narrative is perfect for Benny and it's actually surprising that we haven't had more of this. The only way to improve this style would be to have actual yellow sticky notes inside the book, but that's probably going a bit too far for Big Finish's budget (or mine, but this time I have no complaints whatsoever about the cost of the book).

Based on this, Jac Rayner has assumed the mantle of person I most want to conclude story arcs in the novels. Everything is dealt with superbly here and the continuity (of which there is a fair bit) never feels forced. Even the end, with NA references stretching waaay back into the mists of time, works wonderfully.

There's some incredibly clever stuff going on. I thought I had it down, because there are just enough clues laid for a particular plotline to be guessed at about the right time... and then the rug was completely pulled from under my feet. I love it when this happens, especially because it's done with just the right amount of subtlety. But the book doesn't stop there. It builds and builds, with twist and countertwist coming thick and fast. I was swearing out loud by the end (much to the surprise of the other passengers on the bus, who were surreptitiously writing down the book's title, although sadly I fear they're going to have a hard time finding this gem). And yet, it all makes perfect sense and every single loose end is tied up beautifully. This is exactly what the novels are all about.

There's an entire chapter devoted to nomenclature that puts Peter Darvill-Evans' essay at the end of Asylum to shame. Only when I'd finished the chapter in question did I realise that nothing had progressed in the plot, but it doesn't matter in the slightest. I'm happy to have a book's theme brought out so clearly when it's as entertaining as this is.

The prison itself is drawn with such constant and recurring detail that I started to feel as though I were being watched (or that might have been my fellow passengers). It's a really creepy setup and a fantastic visual image. The characters, both good and evil, are astonishingly vivid as well. I won't say much more on the subject, given that so many of the twists depend on character development, but the way the pieces fall at the end of the novel is sublime. A couple of things seem a bit odd from a dramatic standpoint, such as the way Benny keeps passing out when crucial things happen and has to be told them later, but even this works (and makes a lot of sense, given the situation).

Usually when an author has a character say "Holy shit", it's because they can't convince us any other way. Not so here. The incident in question is astonishing, and would be a thoroughly satisfying climax in any other novel. But here, there's more to come - and what follows actually manages to top this.

The political stuff is also breathtaking. Benny's plan and its galaxy-wide effects -- from prison, no less! -- had me cheering for joy (by this point everyone around me had quietly moved to a different part of the bus). It's the sort of thing that only our favourite archaeologist could get away with, but not once does the novel ring false. Even Gripper's slip, which in the hands of a lesser writer would seem contrived, is a) fully justified, especially later when she has another, crucial one and b) cleverly made to be not nearly as important to the plot as it could have been, thus severely reducing any potential hokiness factor. I'm officially impressed.

Oh, and the negative countdown to the birth is an astonishingly chilling effect. The only inconsistency I found was that early on Bernice says that the lavatories are private (which fortunately forestalled a whole selection of potential jokes that I feared we were going to get after Benny spends a paragraph admiring her breast size), yet later she talks about being seen on the same lavatory. But I can't say this bothered me overly much, especially because she's seen from above, so the lavatory might only have a glass ceiling.

In short, I cannot rave enough about The Glass Prison. From beginning to end, this was a book that piled comedy upon tragedy upon plot twist upon clever subtlety upon deft characterisation upon brilliance. I can't believe that this is the last regular novel for Bernice, because Big Finish have finally given us something truly brilliant. Deeply, thoroughly recommended.

Injustice! by Joe Ford 9/7/02

Every so often an event happens in Doctor Who that makes me want to weep with the injustice of it all. Sacking Colin Baker without realising a tenth of his potential was one. Erasing all of Jamie's memories of his marvellous adventures is another. Although the Bernice Summerfield series isn't Doctor Who, it sprang from the series and has enough (sort of) ties to make it Doctor Who-ish (and at times better). This book is another example of monumental disapointment. How on earth can Big Finish quit the Benny books when they can deliver as much as this?

This book isn't rewarding, it goes beyond that. It is a deeply human drama, a claustrophobic horror story, an intense character study and a gripping whodunnit all rolled into one. It knocks spots of Rayner's last novel (and I ADORED The Squire's Crystal).

I have to admit the first chapter (compelling as it is) left a a little worried. How could a book set in a transparent prison last the 200 odd page count? Surely there has to be a change of location? If everyone can see everything how can there be any twists? I shouldn't have been so silly, this is an expert novelist at the height of her powers and she takes you on a roller coaster ride of excitement, mystery and horror.

Bernice is just so damn human. A simple sentence but it says everything you need to know about her fascinating character. She has all the worries, paranoia's and complexes we all do and yet there is a real brain behind the neurotics, a real sense of optimism and a craving for adventure. She's easily the most rounded character to come out of Who fiction and totally deserves her own series. It is her voice that we hear throughout the story and it is because of these qualities in her that makes it so compelling. She's a born adventurer so being trapped in a prison is just hell. Worse, it's a prison were you have no privacy and you're watched at every moment. Worse, you're banged up with a seriously loony cult. Worse, the floor above you houses a criminal who wants to get at you for putting him away. Worse, you're heavily pregnant.

Poor cow. The first person narrative is exceptional, because we are so accustomed with Benny she feels like an old friend. The horrors she is put through here, seen through her eyes, are degrading, humiliating and terrifying. We're with her every step as she is terrorised and stripped down piece by piece until (in the last chapters) she almost welcomes death. It's utterly heartbreaking but impossible to put down.

There must be something to cling onto, some form of hope...? Of course, her new found 'friends', perhaps the most wonderful, rounded characters we have yet seen.

Claire is just lovely and from the first page on you just want to leap into the book and give her a big hug. Her protection of Benny is admirable and heartwarming and her apparant cowardess makes her all the more endearing. Gripper's role is functional but because of her shifting loyalties you never know when to trust her or not which makes her one to watch. Her callous attitude is fabulous, reminding me in many ways of Compassion but Gripper is even less humane, taunting Benny with scissors actions at the possibility of a C-section. But it is Sophia who impressed me the most. The Grel are such a funny creation, Jac's intepretation of them in the audio Oh No It Isn't! was hysterical but she adds more layers to them here. Whether it's excitingly screaming out "Good fact! Good fact!" or inappropriately going off on a tangent about human sayings she made me laugh and, more importantly, sob when she pitched in to help. There is a phenomenal scene in the middle of the book where things are getting tense and they all start talking about baby names... Benny realises what great friends she has. It sounds schmaltzy but it hits all the right notes and left me crying my eyes out.

If that wasn't enough Jac adds a brilliantly scary murder mystery plot. There are two deaths in this book that scared the crap out of me (let's just say makeshift noose and chicken wings) more than any others in a long time. It is surprising because of my earlier doubts about the lack of surprises but it is shocking because we see every disgusting detail through Benny's eyes. Things hot up when we realise Benny is in serious danger and I was, like the great woman, desperately trying to work who the murderer was.

The last third of the book is an incredible rush of emotions, shocking events, brilliant twists and blood rushing action. It is, like the excellent Time and Relative, practically told in real time as we rush towards the birth of Benny's child. The cultists want the baby. Someone wants Benny dead. I truly couldn't see a way out for our intrepid heroine this time. It was so exciting! I just had to know what happened! Events burst into the air and I was waiting for things to subside but as soon as they do it's just twist after twist after twist... this novel is expertly structured so, while not only telling a great story, you're left feeling rewarded, satisfied and gob smacked by the ingenuity of the plotting. I wish I could read it again for the first time!

The ending should have felt twee but after all the terror it feels like a breath of fresh and ends the book on a really gentle, relaxed note. I'm sure I didn't pick up on half the references to previous books (only having dipped into Benny books occasionally, on reccomendation) and I was a little miffed that we didn't have an appearance of you know who at the ceremony but when that is all I can complain about this must be bloody good! This is a flawless novel, rounding on the Benny books in true style.

Listen to Robert Smith?

Listen to me.

Buy this book.

Goodbye Bernice Summerfield. You were wonderful.

A Review by Finn Clark 25/10/02

Wow, that's a creepy cover.

This isn't just a good novel, it's an important one too. Doctor Who (even at one remove like this) has never told a story about pregnancy and babies. The Doctor's normally too busy blowing up monsters and saving the world. With one notorious post-regenerative example in 1996, he's famous for not getting involved in icky personal relationships or anything else that might have baby-related consequences. By Doctor Who's standards this makes The Glass Prison, in its own unassuming way, ground-breaking.

The book itself is enjoyable. As you've probably gathered by now, Benny must cope with: (a) pregnancy, and (b) a glass prison. With the addition of a few twists and some interesting fellow gaolbirds, this keeps the book bubbling along merrily. I particularly liked Sophia the Grel, a representative of the one and only interesting monster to come out of the Virgin books (no matter that we never actually met one until Oh No It Isn't). The book's tone is more solid and grounded than most authors might have chosen to make it, managing to include as much flippancy as (say) Dave Stone without ever undermining the reality of the situation.

Benny is particularly well drawn. By now one's tempted to add an "obviously" after such a statement, the character having evolved so far that she seems to have become writer-proof, but we've never seen her in this condition before and she definitely isn't Autopilot-Benny. Jac Rayner clearly put a lot of work into portraying her mentality and situation, and it's paid off in spades. But having said that, I really liked almost everyone's characterisation. Wolf perhaps felt a bit over-familiar, being an archetype we've seen ad nauseam in prison tales over the years, but she doesn't overstay her welcome or get in the way of the plot. Benny's cellmates and enemies are all vividly portrayed and easy to enjoy.

Benny gets to be a bit more exhibitionist than usual, though not through her own choice. There's a good scene in the dining hall (with a brutal payoff) and a display on p141 that, if you think about it, isn't necessary. It's not coming out there. Well, maybe she's more comfortable lying like that.

Things change direction for the final chapter, which is so thick with syrup that you'll develop diabetes. Jac/Benny pre-empts our objections with what's traditionally known as the "you can't fire me, I quit" strategy, but pointing out that something's sickly sweet doesn't stop it being sickly sweet. Ah well. Normally I'd have choked like a dog on all that sentiment, but I think The Glass Prison gets away with it for two reasons. Firstly, it's the last book in the line. Just as Twilight of the Gods 2 allowed itself a self-indulgent look back at what had gone before, I think Jac Rayner can be forgiven here for a little wallow in Benny's past life and times.

And secondly, it's about a newborn baby. Benny's first child. (Burning Heart suggests that there might be another later on, but that's strictly hypothetical at this point.) If our heroes can't enjoy a little celebration on an occasion like this, when the hell could they? I also appreciated the little nods back to the mainstream Whoniverse (whatever that means these days), such as the Sanctuary acknowledgement or Benny's letter to her child.

Though on p199, I think a certain word should be "bawling". To say that someone's "balling their eyes out" suggests an activity that probably wouldn't be appropriate for that scene. Particularly with Irving Braxiatel.

I definitely enjoyed this book. It has exactly the required amount of plot, together with good characterisation and a situation that, by Who-related standards, is startling and fresh. The book doesn't shy away from any implications or try to fudge details, but unblinkingly gives us everything Benny's going through. A solid, impressive piece of writing.

A Review by John Seavey 12/3/03

The Glass Prison could well be the final Bernice Summerfield novel ever, and to its credit, it knows it. Instead of just tying up the current arc and laying the groundwork for potential sequels, it ends with a wonderful scene that celebrates Benny's entire adventuring career, and not so much laying the groundwork for potential sequels as showing that there's still life and hope in the character, for whenever anyone else picks up the torch. I'd recommend that everyone at least try to read the last scene of The Glass Prison if you're at all a fan of Benny.

The rest of the novel works too, but not quite so well... Jac Rayner buries her own light touch and comic sensibilities for a book that feels very much like something Paul Cornell, Kate Orman, or Matthew Jones might have written. It's dark, it's grim, and Rayner does do a very good job of conveying Benny's helplessness and near-despair... but flaws in the plot drag the novel down just a bit, making it less than a stellar finale. Still worth reading, but I do think it could have been better.

For one thing, I think the primary mistake was in bringing back the Fifth Axis and Straklant again. I don't wish to disparage Big Finish's nemesis-creating abilities, but a bunch of generic Nazi wannabes who we never actually see doing anything, but we're told are poised to conquer the galaxy, well... they just always seem a little cartoony, a touch too much like Cobra in G.I. Joe. Straklant, their only character to get any real screen time, is so OTT villainous that by the end, one expects him to be twirling his moustache and tying Benny to the railroad tracks. The book does dispatch them, which I have to give it credit for, but they really weren't worth this much time to begin with.

The cult of the Great Mother, which forms the other set of villains in the book, aren't so bad. They definitely give off tones of low, spooky menace the entire time, and their threat to steal Benny's baby is very creepy. However, that leads into the three major problems with this book.

One, Everyone Has Their Own Coincidental Agenda That Never Seems To Interact With Anyone Else's. Straklant is plotting to kill Benny's baby, then Benny, and spends most of the novel making cheap threats. The cult is planning on stealing Benny's baby once it's born, and spends most of the book making cheap threats. The Fifth Axis plans to kill Benny's baby, just to spite the cult... and spend most of the book concealing their plan. These three plots don't really interact with each other at all... Benny just sort of wanders through them all, feeling miserable, until the action-filled climax.

Two, The Red Herring Makes More Sense Than The Actual Explanation. Claire, the cute Pakhar, is suspiciously over-protective of Benny's child. She steered the ship, which found itself taking a sudden and uncontrollable turn into Fifth Axis space. She was one of only a half-dozen people who knew that Benny's child had two mothers. She acts in vaguely suspicious ways throughout the book. Clearly, she's one of the cultists and betrayed Benny...

Except that the author likes her, so instead we get dozens upon dozens of complicated and ludicrous coincidences that produce the same result. The author should have just made Claire the villain, and had done with it.

Three, Everyone's Saved By A Deus Ex Machina. To be fair, this happened in other Benny books too (I'm looking at you, Beyond the Sun...) Benny's not the Doctor. She can't work miracles. That's what makes a lot of this book so great, is the sense of helplessness she feels when in the Glass Prison and the skill with which Rayner conveys that sense of helplessness. Unfortunately, it also means it's hard to get her out of these dilemmas, which is why the whole thing is solved when it turns out that Benny's newborn has a cry of the exact harmonic frequency needed to shatter the crystalline walls of the prison -- and, no less, shatter them in such a way that all the bad guys die before they can react, and all the good guys have time to escape. Phew, lucky that.

Still, I'm probably being too hard on the book. There are some great moments (I will never forget Benny lecturing the cultists on how if they don't want to talk to her, there are plenty of other cults out there looking for a child born of two mothers...) and we get some cute characters (the aforementioned Claire, who is cute, and Sophia, a "nice" Grel) and some great kisses to the past -- Grels, Pakhars, Emile (whose name is spelled wrong, but oh well), Benny's baby's middle name, and a visit from an unspecified old friend of Benny's who can't stop to chat... and as I say, the epilogue, which was just rapturous. Really, if you can ignore the plot, this was absolutely great.

If you can ignore the plot.

A Review by Henry Potts 6/7/03

The Glass Prison has been hailed by some as the best Benny book in the world ever. Paul Cornell cited it as the masterpiece that more than makes up for less successful books earlier in the range. Its supporters put it up against Human Nature, Just War, Dead Romance and Time and Relative as among the best Who/Who-related prose of all time. I do not know why it has this magnificent reputation. The Glass Prison is a below average book with a few high points, but plenty more low points and I am utterly bemused how this exercise in mediocrity gained any reputation at all.

The story is told in the first person by Benny. Virgin did much in the New Adventures with this form, experimenting with Benny's use of her familiar diaries. Several Virgin Benny books have very sophisticated first person narrative forms, notably Lawrence Miles' Down and Dead Romance. The Glass Prison does not. The use of first person narration in The Glass Prison seems entirely to allow endless rambling on Rayner's chosen topic, a format that grew tiresome during The Squire's Crystal and is little better here.

For a short novel, it is surprising how much it can drag on. As with The Squire's Crystal and Earthworld before it, one wonders whether Rayner would have been better working in novella form, not that Rayner seems to have any love for the novella form.

The Glass Prison is a book of two halves... or maybe one half and two quarters. The first half of the book rambles on and on. I don't think anyone ever mentioned the maxim 'show, don't tell' to Rayner for Benny's first person narration saps any drama out of the story with endless wittering. Any subtlety is lost as Benny points out everything two or three times. It's in the third quarter of The Glass Prison that the book finally comes to life with more actually happening, more shown than told. Here is the good novella struggling to get out. There is a real sense of excitement, of a story evolving out of the characters' actions. However, just as I was really getting into the book, it goes spectacularly pear-shaped. While the first half is inoffensive, the final quarter is tosh. The plot is horrendously contrived, yet still makes no sense.

Let's just consider a few of the more bizarre events, for which we will need a SPOILER warning...

The Imperator of the Fifth Axis ends up posing as a doctor and happens to be able to perform a caesarian section. Convenient. A prison riot is completely ignored by the authorities: something about the emergency system in the prison stopping any communication to the outside, so when something goes wrong, nobody will find out... huh?

So, there's this prison riot and the entire Fifth Axis, who we have been told are perfectly willing to butcher people mercilessly, are unable to subdue the prisoners. And then when the prison collapses, the entire force trying to re-take the planet are killed and our intrepid heroine, baby and hangers-on can just walk away. And on p. 188: "Reports came in [...] Of the upper echelons desperately calling upon their troops for protection, only to find they'd all been sent to the Glass Prison - and we knew from first hand experience that there wouldn't be many left to respond to the calls." So the entire military force occupying this strategic planet -- possibly the entirety of the Fifth Axis forces -- was sent to a prison riot (and were then unable to get very far against the prisoners and then all got killed). And to top it all off, this grand -- if nonsensical -- defeat of the Fifth Axis is apparently to be reversed for the forthcoming Life During Wartime anthology.

Plotting has always been Rayner's weakest point. People come and go to generate artificial cliffhangers throughout the book. Benny loses her baby to the cult leader, Wolf, at the end of chapter 16... and the exciting resolution of this drama is that Wolf hands her the baby back as soon as she turns up. Gosh, talk about a tense struggle against the odds. Or, Benny is going to die after the caesarian section... and so Sophia conveniently turns up with a doctor. Oh, and then the baby's screams are conveniently able to destroy the whole building. The bad plotting evinces itself not just in these contrived events. I have already remarked on the pacing, while chapter 15 begins with an exceedingly long infodump as Sophia explains the plot to us.

We are fed umpteen pointless references to obscure and boring elements of Benny continuity. The sheer number of references to Oh No, It Isn't! was startling. The surprise reference to Sanctuary is utterly underwhelming. Meanwhile, what would seem more obvious references to the Gods arc are never voiced. One egregious example of continuity is the appearance of Benny's father on p. 198. Kate Orman wrote a whole book about finding him, so it obviously makes sense to can bring him back and resolve any emotional issues in a paragraph.

The book does not even remember what it is meant to be about. One theme appears to be trust, but has Benny been too trusting or insufficiently trusting? On p. 189, Benny says, "I mean sodding off on my own right at the beginning of all this. I need to trust other people more; to allow myself to rely on them. None of this would have happened..." Er... so what was all that stuff earlier in the book about how she had been too trusting, which is what had caused all her problems with Straklant? (There's a certain amount of chutzpah there: taking a flaw in The Doomsday Manuscript, Benny being unbelievably stupid, and claiming it is part of a character arc.) Or is the book meant to be about having to do terrible things? Down explored those issues better.

So, the plot is nonsense, the drama contrived... what about the humour? Well, jokes aplenty as a Grel interprets common sayings literally. Oh, how I never came anywhere near laughing...

There are some good points to The Glass Prison. Rayner's strength, seen also in Earthworld, is in handling the gooey bits without getting too gooey. Benny's emotion comes through. The character may be boring, she may be the beneficiary of ridiculous coincidences, but there is a heart to the novel, an emotional truth, that saves it from being a complete throwaway like The Doomsday Manuscript or The Gods of the Underword. The reality of pregnancy is mostly well-handled, although the jokes get overused -- shades of The Squire's Crystal. (That said, after all the intimate details of pregnancy and childbirth, it is ages before there is any reference to feeding. The poor baby does not get fed for hours.) The central idea of a glass prison is well realised. There is the core of a powerful novel here... if you strip away the plot, the finale, the writing style...

Were The Glass Prison a first novel in a new series, one might be generous and describe it as "promising". As what will probably be the last ever Benny novel, it is a sad end to a series that gave us books like Beyond the Sun, Ghost Devices, Walking to Bablyon, Dead Romance and Tears of the Oracle.

PS: By the way, someone who works as an editor should be deeply embarrassed to make the commonest spelling mistake around: writing "Am I loosing it?" instead of "Am I losing it?" (p. 83).

A Review by Jamas Enright 21/10/04

Benny is trapped in the Glass Prison, held prisoner by the Fifth Axis. And she's about to give birth. And she's sharing the prison with a cult that believes her to be the Great Mother that will bring about the destruction of the Fifth Axis. And there's nothing she can do about it.

Jacqueline Rayner was given the duties of turning over a new chapter in the life of Benny Summerfield, and she had a lot to live up to. There's little plot here, but there are characters aplenty going through many trials, the main one of course being Benny herself. In a way there's an abundance of characterisation here, to compensate for the lack of plot, which tends to bog the book down slightly. Too many characters, basically.

There's Benny herself, of course, but Jacqueline Rayner knows how to write her well, and all of what Benny goes through is very believable. Then there's Claire, a Pakhar, who's cute and Sophia, a friendly Grel (a rather unusual concept in itself). There's Grippa, there's the Wolf and the other cultists, and there's Straklant. Although they're all done well, there's still too many.

There are plenty of references to past novels here, as to be expected, but The Glass Prison is a must read for anyone interested in the Benny story.