It’s not often that Appalachia becomes the focus of a science fiction story, despite the unending talk of turning coal miners into coders. So when I first noticed the ominous cover of These Prisoning Hills and learned that it takes place within that fabled range, I had to get my hands on the novella. Christopher Rowe’s book is haunting, vague and an incredible work of imagination that left me questioning its deeper ideas.
These Prisoning Hills follows Marcia, a former captain who fought in a long ago war against the rogue artificial intelligence known as Athena Parthenus. This all powerful A.I. ran the Voluntary State and declared war on the southeastern United States. Marcia has been pulled out of her long retirement as the federals have discovered that one of Athena’s dreaded Commodores, has been unearthed and may threaten the land once again. It’s up to her to lead a new generation of soldiers through the shifting landscape of Appalachia to find the hulking weapon of mass destruction.
While I did not read the other short stories that are a part of this world Rowe has created, I had no issue understanding the time and place These Prisoning Hills existed within. If Rowe accomplishes one thing with this novella, it’s Atmosphere, and boy is it thick. It’s been a while since I felt transported to another time and place in the way this novella imagines the weirdness of Appalachia. From the vague descriptions of the geography, to the volunteer warbands that dress like birds to hide from Athena’s eyes, I was engrossed. There was an ominous and foreboding tinge to both the present and past timelines within the book, as if each perspective informed the other. Time does not matter, and it does not heal within this place.
Marcia was a particularly likable protagonist for such a short story. She felt like a woman who has lived a life full of sorrow, pain and has accepted her fate. Her voice rolls out clearly and strongly. I especially loved her little asides about her on again, off again husband Carter. She had a dry wit that was fashioned from a lifetime of knowing the people around her. The characters around her too all felt like big personalities, even in their short page count. Alma, a side character from Marcia’s past, is easily the most memorable for me. Her curiosity about history ending once she realizes it involves “fucking empires.” Everyone had their bit to play, but they felt alive because of Marcia’s little flavor she adds to their interactions.
One of the more fascinating aspects of These Prisoning Hills is how Rowe engages with the world within the novella. Word choice and language have a particular meaning, especially when it comes to the periphery and the people and objects that act within it. It feels like there is so much happening beyond Marcia’s perception, and Rowe only gives hints of it here. Not only does it make me want to read the other stories set within this world, but it opens up so many questions about how the society is set up. It forces the reader to ask questions and draws connective lines between the varying factions. There may be sides, but how we view their different systems is all defined by the words we use to describe them. It isn’t a matter of “good vs bad,” so much as who gets to be deemed active or passive, and how that assigns a particular righteousness. It’s even blatantly called attention to with a single line in a conversation.
I am enthralled by this small work. It may not be some folks’ cup of tea as it’s a piece of fiction that raises more questions than it answers, but I found it particularly delicious. I read it twice just to feel the atmosphere, and slip beyond the walls of my own imagination. These Prisoning Hills is something special and I hope more people have the ability to check it out.
Rating: These Prisoning Hills 8.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.