Simon Toyne (simontoyne.net)
Released: 12th April 2012
Regular visitors may remember that around this time last year, I reviewed Simon Toyne’s debut novel, the wonderful thriller, Sanctus. I liked it so much that it ended up on my best of the year list. So it was with that all-too-familiar mix of excitement and trepidation that I awaited Toyne’s second novel; excitement because it forms the second part of a planned trilogy, and trepidation that it might not live up to expectation. I’m happy to say that any worries I might have had were laid to rest almost immediately upon opening the book.
The Key follows on immediately after the end of Sanctus. Unfortunately, due to the close links between the two books, it is almost impossible to give a brief overview of this novel without including spoilers for its predecessor. I will try to keep these to a minimum, and will most definitely not be revealing the outcome of Sanctus.
Liv Adamsen and Kathryn Mann are in hospital along with the surviving members of the Sancti from the Citadel – who have all suffered massive haemorrhaging as a result of the removal of the Sacrament from the mountain – while Kathryn’s son Gabriel has ended up in police custody. From the opening chapter, Toyne widens the scope of this second novel, introducing us to The Ghost, a Bedouin warrior who deals in ancient relics found in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. In the Vatican, Cardinal Secretary Clementi has set plans in motion that will re-float the Church financially, and in the ancient Citadel that looms over the city of Ruin, the remaining monks attempt to adapt to life without the Sacrament and its green-robed guardians.
A verse in a notebook belonging to Kathryn Mann’s father – the so-called Mirror Prophecy – sets Liv and Gabriel on a journey into the Iraqi desert, the fate of the world in their hands and the power of the Catholic Church set against them.
Like Sanctus, The Key is a fast-paced and intelligent thriller. Interestingly, the reveal that defined the closing section of Sanctus is not mentioned here until around 200 pages in – when we first see Liv, she has no recollection of what has happened in the Citadel, and we are re-introduced to this key plot point piece by piece as Liv’s memories resurface. It’s a nice trick: on the one hand, it opens the book to a wider audience than just those people who read the first book (although I would highly recommend reading them in order); on the other hand, readers of Sanctus are forced to do some of the work in recalling what has gone before.
All of the characters that made Sanctus such a success are back, and it is interesting to see how they have evolved over the relatively short time period that the two novels cover – The Key picks up around a week after the end of Sanctus. The balance of power has shifted, most noticeably within the mountain stronghold, and none of the characters have survived the events unscathed, emotionally or physically. They are joined by a host of new characters who are equally well-drawn: Cardinal Secretary Clementi who may be in too deep as he engages in shady dealings in an attempt to hide the fact that the Church is broke; the mysterious and creepy Ghost, scouring the desert for ancient relics and selling them on the black market; the massive Dick, a man with a love for words who, for this reader at least, evokes the memory of another giant of literature: Daniel Bunkowski, better known as Chaingang, from the series of novels by Rex Miller that bear the giant’s name. Here too, much to my delight (and, if the search terms that lead you folks to my little corner of the web are correct, much to the delight of many other people), is the city of Ruin in all its glory, still taking centre stage despite the fact that much of the action takes place elsewhere.
It doesn’t take long to realise we’re on solid ground here with a writer who has proven that Sanctus was not just beginner’s luck. With the exception of a mystery that really isn’t – which will by no means ruin the enjoyment of the story, but did leave this reader feeling slightly flat – The Key is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that requires some deductive reasoning on the part of the reader. It’s a solid storyline that builds on the foundations laid in Sanctus, and while it lacks something of the previous book, The Key is still amongst the best thrillers you will read this year. It marks Simon Toyne as a man to watch, one of a new breed of young, vibrant writers who set new standards of excellence in their chosen genres.
Julianna Baggott (www.juliannabaggott.com)
Headline Books (www.headline.co.uk)
As a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, I am always excited to see what new worlds can spring forth from the minds of writers whose contemplations all start at the same point: what if the world as we know it ended? In Pure, Julianna Baggott gives us a vision of a post-nuclear world where the survivors are split into two groups: within the sealed Dome, the Pure, a group of carefully selected people and their offspring who have survived the nine-year period completely unscathed, and unaffected by the Detonations; outside the Dome, the scarred and mutated wretches, who wait for the day when the Dome will open, and their brethren will come to their aid.
Partridge Willux, a Pure, is convinced that his mother – who stayed behind to save others while the rest of her family escaped to the safety of the Dome – is still alive. He flees to the outside world, where he meets Pressia Belze, a sixteen-year-old girl who is on the run from the local militia. Along with the revolutionary, Bradwell, they set off in search of Partridge’s mother, through a wasteland that is as hostile to the natives as it is to the newcomer. And behind everything lies the Dome, whose leaders are less benevolent than most people think.
Baggott quickly introduces us to her world by effectively throwing us in at the deep end. Outside the Dome, the people are badly scarred and bear sometimes horrific mutations caused, we learn, from nanotechnology used in the bombs, designed to make the victims fuse with the world around them. We quickly discover that even within the wider group of wretches, there are plenty of sub-castes: people like Pressia, her hand replaced with the head of the doll she was holding during the Detonations, or Bradwell fused with the handful of birds that were nearby; the Groupies, people fused with others, becoming a single entity; the Dusts, fused with the ground around them and attacking anyone who walks too close. The ever-present ash covers everything, making this a dull and dirty world where just making it through another day is cause for celebration.
Meanwhile, within the Dome, we find a different picture: here there are no scars, and no mutations. Boys are trained in the Academy, and receive “coding” – physical and mental enhancements designed to prepare them for the inevitable day when they will retain control of the world that has been cleansed for them. Here is a sterile world, where individual thought is frowned upon and anyone not toeing the party line ends up in rehabilitation centres, their rights removed.
There is, as you might expect from the first book in a trilogy of this kind, a lot of world-building in Pure. But there are very personal stories at its heart, and it’s easy to engage with the three central characters, all damaged to a greater or lesser degree and all searching for something – a parent, an identity, acceptance. Baggott handles these intimate stories with tenderness and more than a little (often black) humour, while never losing sight of that bigger picture, or letting the reader forget just how messed up this new world is. The deformities of the people we meet on this journey are often grotesque (Pressia and Bradwell are two of the luckier specimens) but Baggott somehow prevents it from ever becoming comic or unconvincing; it’s a difficult trick to achieve when creating a grotesquery on this sort of scale.
There is a darker side to the novel, too; some shocks and scares that will prevent you getting too comfortable as you read. Post-apocalyptic fiction generally straddles the boundary between science fiction and horror. Pure is more of the former, but with enough of a sprinkling of the latter to make it interesting. This is a brutal and violent world, and Baggott does not shy away from this fact in her writing.
Pure has received glowing advance praise, and I will freely admit that it was the comparison to Justin Cronin’s The Passage that finally sold it to me. It’s an intelligent and entertaining piece that certainly deserves the comparison. It’s closer in tone and setting to Robert McCammon’s Swan Song and certainly no less well-written than that classic of the genre (second, for me, only to King’s The Stand). Personally, the interest now lies in finding out if Baggott can maintain this quality – and the fine balance between believability and self-caricature – over the course of the next two books in the series. Regardless, Pure works well as a standalone novel that is sure to become, along with The Passage, the benchmark against which all modern post-apocalyptic fiction is measured. It’s a must-read for fans of the genre, or anyone looking to see how much more the genre has to offer than the myriad zombie-filled satires that currently fill the horror section of our local bookshops.
Zoran Drvenkar (www.drvenkar.de)
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Blue Door (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)
I will admit that when I saw the cover of Zoran Drvenkar’s Sorry – the first of the German author’s novels to be translated into English – my first thought was that it was a novel aimed at a young adult audience. What lies behind that stark white cover – or the stark black version, which is just as striking – is much darker, and more complex than I had imagined; “young adult” it most certainly is not.
A group of four Berlin friends approaching the end of their twenties decide to open an agency that will apologise on your behalf. They decide immediately that they will only take on corporate commissions and, under the leadership of Kris, a young man who knows exactly what to say, they find themselves earning more money than they could have dreamed. They move to a villa on the shores of the Wannsee and make it both home and base of operations. When Wolf, Kris’ younger brother, arrives at an appointment on the top floor of an apartment block in the run-down Kreuzberg area, he has no way of knowing what lies in wait for him, and what consequences it will have for his life, and for the lives of his friends. A woman hangs on the wall, one nail through her crossed wrists, another through her forehead, at her feet a paper bag containing a threat that means Wolf cannot just walk away; their job is to apologise to this dead woman, and then to clean up the murderer’s mess.
Drvenkar uses multiple points of view to tell the story of this group of young people and the man who has decided to use them for his own ends. Using first, second and third-person narratives, the author sows confusion in the mind of the reader, leaving us unsure of whom to trust until the story reaches its dark and violent climax. As the story progresses, and we come to know these characters who are moving slowly into darker territory, towards an inevitable evil, we start to learn some of the murderer’s motivations; it’s an unpleasant story of ritual child abuse – sometimes graphically described – by two very unpleasant characters, spanning the course of several years. Sorry is a tough and at times unpleasant read, but ultimately, as the pieces slot into place, and we learn exactly what is going on, it is also a very rewarding read.
It will take some time to become used to the multiple viewpoints. It’s easy to make assumptions – something that the reader should avoid at all costs – about story portions told in the first or second person, especially when for the vast majority of the book, the killer is referred to as “You”; it’s a disconcerting feeling, which adds to the overall atmosphere.
You drive the nail through the bone of her forehead. It takes you four more blows than the hands did, before the nail pierces the back of her head and enters the wall. She twitches, her twitch becomes a quiver, then she hangs still.
The book does have some problems, and it is almost a shame to mention them. At least one important thread seems to remain unresolved, something that may well have been done by design. It is difficult to describe in any more detail than that without including spoilers. There are also times when the narrative seems quite clunky. For the most part, the story is told in the present tense, with past tense used where appropriate to describe things that have already happened. There are places – and more than a few – where tenses become interchangeable across the course of a handful of sentences, sometimes leaving the reader to try and parse exactly what is happening. It’s difficult to work out, though, if this is down to the complexity of the writing, or slips in the translation. As I said, it’s almost a shame to mention them, and neither of these points is unlikely to mar the enjoyment of this excellent novel.
Sorry is a cleverly-plotted piece of intrigue. Drvenkar is a writer who is sure of what he’s doing, and proves it by constantly surprising even this most jaded reader of crime fiction. It’s a dark and violent novel that, because of some elements, will not appeal to everyone; it should, however, find many fans outside the crime genre: there are times when Sorry teeters on the edge of horror. Despite the aforementioned clunkiness, the excellent story – original, exciting and very well-conceived – shines through to make this a must-read for fans of tough, gruesome fiction. Drvenkar is a prolific writer, but Sorry is his first novel to receive an English translation. It’s unlikely it will be the last time we see his name on British bookshelves and, if he can continue telling stories like this, it won’t be long before he becomes a permanent fixture on my own must-read list.