Rating: 5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel


He was fifteen when he killed the man who would have raped his twin sister. The jury gave him a fifty-year sentence with no opportunity for parole. Juvenile detention was harsh, but he learned how to survive as Prisoner 793. Not only that, but he found a friend, boyfriend, and lover in Thomas. For a brief, blissful period of time, being incarcerated was bearable because he loved Thomas and Thomas loved him. Not even getting transferred to a supermax facility when 793 turned 18 changed their relationship, it just altered it. And they knew it would only be six months until Thomas turned 18 and could rejoin him. So he waited. But the day the transport van bringing Thomas was supposed to arrive, there was an accident. Thomas never came. No one had any news beyond something involving an accident. Then, 793 got a letter with a tell tale slip stapled to it and his world shattered.

More than anything, 793 wants Thomas back, but with that being impossible, he dedicates himself to not dying on the inside. For years, he observes and memorizes patterns, worked hard, keeps his nose clean, and earns the guards’ trust. Being alone with his thoughts day in and day out also gives him enough information to plan a prison break. No one is more surprised than 793 when it actually works. Once out from behind bars, he pushes hard to put as much distance between himself and prison as possible. Everything is going smoothly until he steals away on a luxury yacht. His embarkation goes unnoticed, but as he disembarks in a ritzy waterfront home, the yacht’s owner catches him. Instead of immediately calling the police, however, Tristan, an orphaned graduate student who inherited the boat along with his parents’ wealth, engages him in conversation. Things take a turn for the surreal when Tristan starts actively helping 793 stay off the radar. First, he brings food and clothing. Then, he offers him an unbelievable deal: a remote cabin completely off the grid and in need of a caretaker. 793 can hardly say no when Tristan makes the offer so earnestly and talks so openly about it being the right thing to do. When he reminds 793 of his real name, it’s like a key that unlocks just enough of the man 793 knows he can be if he can just be free.

Prisoner is the first book in the Steele Pack series from author GiGi DeGraham. It’s a heavy-hitting saga that focuses mostly on two parts of Prisoner 793’s life: his time behind bars and his time after he escapes. (Note, I refer to the MC as 793 because I also love the way DeGraham uses his name as a device to mark different stages in the story, and I don’t want to spoil that effort in my review.) That said, the storytelling is anything but linear. We are first introduced to 793 a short time before he executes his escape plan, but there are a few flashbacks to his time in juvenile detention that flesh out what kind of person he is in prison and how he meets Thomas. These vignettes continue after 793 meets Tristan and starts serving as caretaker for Tristan’s remote cabin. Not only do both realities have brutal survival themes at their core, they are made bearable and bittersweet by 793’s relationship and memories of Thomas. There are two additional themes that crop up once 793 starts his caretaker role. One is his complex connection to Tristan and the other is the ubiquitous presence of a gray wolf.

I really enjoyed the intimacy 793 finds with Thomas. He was arrested at 15 and just barely knew anything about anything and mostly it consisted of “girls are pretty, I’d like to know a pretty girl.” In juvenile detention, emotional intimacy is simply not condoned and yet the guards turn a blind eye to all manner of sexual misconduct (some of it statutory rape and most of it sexual assault). Strangely, 793 puts on a very public show of “claiming” Thomas when he first arrives. 793 is a big fish in juvie and it affords Thomas the kind of protection he needs. I loved how this unsavory (and for Thomas, bewildering) forced-hand introduction gives way to genuine affection. These two are clearly made for each other. They are constantly together for the joy of being together—as much as anyone locked up can have unadulterated joy. And Thomas awakens feelings 793 never knew about, along with a lot of questions about his sexuality.

This story explores many kinds of sexuality. 793 isn’t sure if he loves Thomas because he’s a boy or loves a boy because he is Thomas. The whole spectrum of these feelings are detailed and I loved watching 793 sift through his feelings and try to figure them out. When 793 is free and living in Tristan’s cabin, he has time (and wayward thoughts force him) to once again consider his sexuality. Thomas is dead, but he will always love Thomas. At the same time, 793 feels an affinity for Tristan. Tristan himself enjoys how 793 makes him feel, but is also aware that his asexual identity may be at odds with the kind of relationship a partner, like, say, 793, would want. The whole post-escape story is brimming with tension around what will or won’t happen between 793 and Tristan. 793 feels a kind of attraction to Tristan, though it goes through different stages. Tristan also feels something for 793, but he seems to worry that his being asexual will mean he can’t have love. While they both know they are evolving a deep connection, neither the characters nor the reader really have a clear idea of where it’s going to go.

On the whole, I was enthralled with this book. I thought DeGraham did wonderful work describing the injustice of the American justice system while not belaboring the point. Instead, readers get two remarkable stories about 793’s life: his first and only true love, and his ability to cope without that man while readjusting to a new kind of freedom. For fans of paranormal books, the cliffhanger at the end is sure to delight. Readers who like characters to take the time to explore and understand their emotional and sexual identities will also probably enjoy reading about how 793 falls for Thomas and how 793 and Tristan work on making their needs known, despite not having great communication abilities for those discussions.