Review of One Way by S.J. Morden
by S.J. Morden
One Way is obviously trying to capitalize on the renaissance of Mars fiction, but if I had to liken it to an Andy Weir novel, it wouldn’t be The Martian—it has more in common with Artemis. This is a story of survival on Mars, yes, but it’s also a mystery wrapped up in corporate intrigue. S.J. Morden starts by asking what might happen if we sent convicts to construct a Mars base … and then what might happen if someone started killing them all off. There are certainly some intriguing ideas here, but in general I wasn’t greatly enthusiastic about this one. Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for the eARC of this novel.
Frank is serving a life sentence for murder. When the parent company of the company that owns his prison offers him a chance to serve the rest of his sentence on Mars, he decides to accept. Little does he know that he’s getting into a training regimen that has a life in supermax at the end of it if he flunks out. And when he does make it to Mars, the rest of his fellow crew mates start dying mysteriously one by one. Can Frank find the killer, and stop them, in time? Or is he doomed to die on Mars well before his time?
As far as protagonists go, Frank is all right, I guess. Morden tries to give us a sympathetic character: Frank is in prison because he killed his son’s drug dealer. He’s a man who knows that what he did is considered unacceptable, but he did it anyway, and he does not regret that if it saved his son’s life. Throughout the novel, we’re supposed to see that Frank’s strong moral compass sets him apart from the other convicts. Frank has made his peace with his situation, and that’s what allows him to keep it together throughout the vicious training regime and beyond. Still, Frank seems rather one-dimensional beyond this part of his character. We don’t learn much about him as a person other than his former occupation and a bit of his family life. Morden tries to allude to how Frank’s time inside has changed him, made him slightly harder and warier—but all of that feels stereotypical, shorthand familiar to anyone with a movie/TV/book view of what prisons are like.
The first part of the book, with the preparations for going to Mars, was pretty fascinating for me. I liked watching Frank and his fellow crew undergo their training. I liked seeing their struggle, the way they slowly started to work together, the way Morden sets up the antagonism with Brack. It’s the second part, on Mars itself, when One Way shifts into mystery mode, that Morden starts to lose me.
It’s just not a very compelling mystery. So people start dying. The suspects are few, and while it might not be obvious who is doing it right at first, it also doesn’t feel … urgent. This is compounded by the reveal towards the end about the role of the company in the mystery (I’m not going to spoil it). In general, this dimension of One Way underdelivers. As someone who enjoys mysteries, that’s a little disappointing, and I certainly wouldn’t pick up this book based solely on that promise. If you like Mars stories, then sure, there might be something for you here—but somehow I don’t think it will be enough.