Frank is 8 years into a life sentence, with no chance of parole, when XO, the company who own his privately run prison, offer to cut him a deal. If he volunteers to take a trip to Mars, as an indentured servant in a crew of convicts, he'll be given much more freedom and something like a real life. Granted, it'll be on Mars, but it's better than an early death after another ten or so years of tedium.
So he signs up, and is immediately shipped out to a training facility with a collection of other miscreants, each of whom have committed some terrible crime that has left them pariahs on Earth, but also with a handy skill useful for building a station on a new planet. XO have been contracted by Nasa to provide them with a Mars base, (they're a bit like SpaceX, but more evil), and they've decided that a crew of people unwanted on Earth are the best ones to be shipped off it, with little chance of return.
Frank's own crime, the cold-blooded murder of his son's drug dealer seems small in comparison to a motorway slaughter or a Shipman-like spree of mercy killing, but his cold logic and rational brain come from a lifetime of project management in his construction business, making him excellent for controlling the building of a Mars-base. It also helps him manage the six other villains in his team, the unbalanced messes that they are.
He is "helped" in this by Braque, the drill sergeant nasty sent with them as their jailer and manager, the company man trying to watch them and make sure the building work is completed on schedule, ready for the first NASA crew.
The obvious comparisons to make are with Armageddon and The Martian, so let's make that comparison now. It's placed between both of them (even with a leaving the planet signing moment), with the convict twist being a nice one. The various criminals have no small number of flaws between them, and the slow reveals of some of their backgrounds is very neatly done. The other big difference is that where in those stories NASA is very much on their side, here, XO don't really care if they live or die. They're a business, and they're in it to make a profit, not be the prisoner's mother.
That ruthlessness and cost-cutting is revealed through fragments of backstory, with each chapter beginning with a memo, section of audio log or email, revealing how sections of budget are skimmed away. These are a very nice touch, and add an impressive satirical tone to the work.
Once they finally get to Mars (the training section is rather long, but actually is very enjoyable, so I'm not complaining), a string of accidents slowly whittle them down, reducing their numbers. And Frank begins to wonder just how unlucky they have to be for this many people to have "accidents". So begins an element of murder mystery, though I found this a bit predictable. I would approach it as a thriller, rather than a mystery.
The "cast" are relatively shallow, but entertaining for all that. We get glimpses of each of them, enough to drive the plot along, but we mostly live inside Frank's head. Thankfully, it's an interesting place, with a lot of technical detail and solutions to the various problems that attract a terrible nerd like me.
I cheated a bit, and listened to the audiobook, rather than reading it. I think this was absolutely the best move. It's read by William Hope, and he has a perfectly on tone world-weary voice, that brought Frank's sense of despair to the forefront. I'd be tempted to say it's the best way to enjoy it.