Nothing Sacred

by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

Cover image

Series: Tibet #1
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: March 1991
Printing: January 1992
ISBN: 0-553-29511-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 336

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Viveka Jeng Vanachek, an over-educated child of American hippies, is a warrant officer in the armed forces of a unified North American government some fifty years into the future. The economy has mostly collapsed, the environment is very bad but being somewhat cleaned up, and the military has sucked up all of the people who are undesireable or who can't find jobs. The North American Continental Allied Forces allies itself with everyone, providing troops and expertise frequently to all sides of a conflict, in exchange for getting control over and defusing their nuclear weapons. Viveka is typical of many soldiers: trained in only one particular system, trapped in the military without anything else to do with her life, and expendable. When her plane is shot down over the Himalayas during a three-way fight between Russia, China, and India, no one is likely to come look for her in a Chinese prison camp.

Things look grim and quite nasty at the start of this story (Viveka is raped fairly early on), and seem likely to get worse when she's forced to climb nearly inaccessible paths to a top-secret prison camp. That's also the first note of oddness: she knows nothing strategic about the war and is a strange choice for a top-security facility. She's also hypnotized to make the journey, letting her climb areas that she'd never be able to do before and leaving her in sudden agony at the end of the journey. The new facility at first seems like a typical Chinese prison camp, but she begins having odd dreams about monks and chanting and none of her cellmates can remember just how long they've been there. The book is a slow unfolding of the secrets of this prison camp, the enigmatic woman who seems to be in charge, and their true purpose.

Be warned up front: this is a prisoner of war story, and, particularly at the start of the book, it's a nasty and desperate place. It takes some time for the atmosphere and tone to change and for Viveka's situation to become less desperate; the early scenes are dark and a bit off-putting. As the story progresses, it turns into a combination of a mystery and a psychological study, adding more and more characterization of both the guards and the prisoners while dropping further hints about what's truly going on at the camp and providing a more nuanced and optimistic view. By the end of the book, the tone has changed, and Scarborough doesn't dwell on the worst bits. The first hundred pages are best read when in the right mood to handle some viciousness, though.

The puzzle of figuring out both the world background and the purpose of the monastery was the most engrossing part for me. As soon as Viveka starts getting stories from the other prisoners and gets access to the prison computer, it becomes clear that something weird is going on. My early guesses were all wrong, though, and I enjoyed the direction Scarborough went with it. The world background is a bit unbelievable in places (absorbing the unemployed population into the military doesn't make a lot of sense to me, nor does requiring Ph.D.'s to work menial jobs), but it doesn't hurt the story much. It's there mostly to provide a dystopian future against which to set the other events of the book.

The story is told as diary entries by Viveka, and I think will succeed or fail based on how much the reader likes the characters. Character interaction drives most of the story, with only a few major external events, so one has to be interested enough in the characters to want to see multiple sides to their personality. I liked Viveka and found it easy to root for her; she has a determined curiosity crossed with some skepticism and a practical make-do attitude that fit the story well.

Nothing Sacred didn't blow me away, but I had little trouble staying with it to the end. Recommended if the above description sounds interesting, although I wouldn't put it at the top of your list.

Followed by Last Refuge, although it's satisfying on its own and doesn't require the sequel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-11-02

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21