Review: Bernice Summerfield – The Glass Prison

Review by Jacob Licklider

The Bernice Summerfield Range is Big Finish’s flagship, running with releases since the company’s founding in 1998 with audios and novels being the two staples for the character, succeeding Virgin Publishing’s series of Benny novels.  With publishing audios and novels side by side, early story arcs crossed over and continued; often alternating between novel and audio, especially with the first five Benny novels and second series of Benny audios creating a difficult continuity when the books went out of print.  They infamously go to high prices to get editions of these books, but this problem has been uplifted in the past year as Big Finish Productions have produced audiobook readings of these books, all read by Benny herself, Lisa Bowerman. The final book in this sequence is Bernice Summerfield and the Glass Prison written by Jacqueline Rayner; which could easily be described as completing the character arc that the VNAs and the previous four Big Finish books had begun.  The audiobook production, like all of the previous Benny audiobooks, are the barebones readings with no music and no sound effects putting much of the weight on the reader’s shoulders.  Luckily, with Lisa Bowerman (who plays Benny) the listener is in safe hands. Bowerman takes the numerous characters in her stride, including those who appear in audios giving her best impression of actors like Stephen Fewell, Harry Myers, Steven Wickam, and Miles Richardson.  There is a real habitation of each character as Bowerman makes enough of a distinction between characters, so the listener knows who is speaking and has her own voice for the narration.  As this review is for a book written and released in 2002, there will be spoilers so if you haven’t read The Glass Prison or listened to the audiobook now is the time to do so.  It is an excellent read and you won’t be disappointed. Jacqueline Rayner is an author who often implements a theme throughout the story she is writing and the most prevalent theme of The Glass Prison is that of motherhood.  This is the book where Benny gives birth to her half-human, half-Killoran son, Peter Guy Summerfield, done so in the titular glass prison.  Confining Benny to the prison for the majority of the novel allows Rayner to explore the character’s insecurities about motherhood and what it means to have a child.  She lost her own mother to the Daleks when she went back to get a doll Benny dropped, and her father was mostly absent in her life until the events of Revenge of the Living Dad.  Her marriage had already fallen apart, and her pregnancy wasn’t even her own choice.  This is the story of a woman who has been through her own personal hell and now has to give birth in prison while under the iron fist of a fascist regime.  The birth itself actually becomes the climax of the book as a cult in the prison that believes that Peter is going to save them all from the Fifth Axis. So not only does Benny have to deal with a prison whose guards want her and her child dead, but also an insane cult who wants her baby to save the galaxy.

While the character arc with Benny coming to accept this child as her own is the main force of the novel and only really solved in the last two chapters, the prison itself is almost a character.  Rayner has created a harrowing situation for the prisoners as glass prison is exactly what it means. The prison is made of glass so there is no privacy, putting prisoners in a real situation of torture.  I can but speculate, as this was released in a post-9/11 world, I wonder if the idea came from governments encroaching on people’s right to privacy. There is always someone watching in prison, and Rayner includes a system of collective punishment for cellmates who cause trouble or simply annoy the guards or administration.  This is a book which puts Benny with three other women (one of whom is a Grel) and they all have to bond while Benny is getting closer and closer to the birth. The final few chapters deal with the naming ceremony where Benny comes to terms with her own son after giving birth. The naming ceremony is essentially Benny closing the story with Jason and Adrian and having a real heart to heart with Brax.  Overall, Bernice Summerfield and the Glass Prison is a powerhouse of a novel and the true end of an era.  Props to Jacqueline Rayner for finishing the story and Lisa Bowerman for bringing it to life 18 years later.  10/10.

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