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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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post-apocalyptic

THE TESTIMONY by James Smythe

THE TESTIMONY - James Smythe THE TESTIMONY

James Smythe (james-smythe.com)

Blue Door Books (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)

£12.99

At first, we thought the noise was just a radio.

Suddenly, the whole world is filled with static and, as it dies away, the words My Children. No-one has any idea where the noise has come from, or to whom the voice belongs. Hours later, the static returns, and the message continues: Do not be afraid. The world is immediately split into four camps: those who believe it was the voice of one or other god or God; those who believe it is a message from aliens; those who believe it is a top-secret experiment gone wrong; and those who heard nothing at all. As religious mania sweeps the globe and order begins to slip, fingers are pointed and pre-emptive strikes launched. But the voice has more to say, and the human race has even more difficult challenges to face.

The Testimony is, as the title suggests, a collection of first-person accounts detailing the events as they unfold, the gradual decline of order and sanity, and the descent into chaos. There are twenty-six such accounts (according to the book’s blurb – I haven’t counted), interspersed to form a loose timeline from the first occurrence of the static through to the book’s conclusion. Only a handful of these characters form what could be considered the core group, the characters essential to the central plot of the novel, and therein lies part of the book’s downfall.

As a fan of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Testimony, James Smythe’s first novel, should have ticked all the boxes for me. The idea is startlingly original and it details an all-too-plausible spiral of horror and madness as things fall apart. In some ways it is reminiscent of King’s The Stand, or Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, documenting the transition from the world we know to the one that remains when things go horribly wrong. In places it is gripping and horrific, showing glimpses of this brilliant young writer at his best, but there are too many problems and, ultimately, the book fails on a number of levels.

Some of the problems are fairly minor – nothing to ruin to story, but enough to jar the reader out of the moment. These are mainly continuity errors, problems that should have been caught before publication – names that change from one chapter to the next or problems with some of the timings: for example, everyone who heard the static heard it at exactly the same time, yet people in London heard it while eating their lunch and people in Leeds heard it at four-thirty in the morning. It sounds like nit-picky stuff, but when it’s noticeable enough to mar the reading experience, that’s a problem.

A more serious problem for me was the massive overpopulation. There are a handful of key players, and it quickly becomes obvious who they are. There are other, less-important, players who nonetheless play pivotal roles in key subplots, giving a different perspective to the events as they unfold. Beyond that there are far too many characters who seem to go nowhere: we see them once or twice for the duration of the novel, or they are frequent contributors who don’t actually add anything to the story. There is a sense, as we approach the end of the novel, that they are nothing more than padding, and it’s a frustrating realisation.

My biggest problem with The Testimony, however, is the fact that it fizzles to nothing at the end. It’s as if Smythe pulls away from the worst-case scenario at the last minute; instead of the brilliant post-apocalyptic vision of which we get glimpses in the middle section of the novel, we find a disappointing conclusion with a tacked-on feel.

The Testimony has, at its core, a wonderful idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. James Smythe’s vision of a world on the brink is all the more frightening because of its plausibility and we get all-too-brief glimpses of what he is capable of as a writer throughout, particularly in the middle section of the novel. There are too many problems, and the book never quite achieves the level it should. A disappointment, but not a complete write-off: The Testimony fails to live up to this reader’s expectations, but it has served to put a potentially wonderful writer on my radar.

PURE by Julianna Baggott

PURE - Julianna Baggott PURE

Julianna Baggott (www.juliannabaggott.com)

Headline Books (www.headline.co.uk)

£14.99

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.

OUTPOST by Adam Baker

OUTPOST-AdamBaker OUTPOST

Adam Baker

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£12.99

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how much I enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction. There is an abundance of zombie fiction on the go these days, and it’s one of the sub-genres of horror where people aren’t afraid to experiment and play with the tropes, which keeps it somewhat fresher than you might expect. So we find ourselves dealing with the rotting recent-dead of Romero’s Dead movies, as well as the virus-infected zombies of the 28 <Arbitrary Time Period> Later films, and those affected by unidentified radio waves, as in Stephen King’s Cell. To my mind, though, there has always been a bit of a gap in the post-apocalypse sub-genre, particularly when zombies are involved, and it always occurs to me in the form of a question when I’m reading such a book: the author focuses on a set of survivors who have lived through whatever disaster forms the setup for the story, and how they cope in the post-apocalyptic world, but what about those people physically removed from civilisation at that point in time? I’m usually thinking along the lines of the handful of men and women who are currently sitting on the International Space Station, but you get the idea.

Adam Baker’s first novel, Outpost, finally fills this gap. As the novel opens we find ourselves in the Arctic oil fields, bedded down on Kasker Rampart, an oil refinery manned by a skeleton crew of fifteen, awaiting their imminent return to society before the refinery is shut down, or relocated. Weeks before the ship is due to arrive to evacuate them back to Britain, they begin to see worrying news reports on the 24-hour news stations – people are turning violent, killing those around them; a trend that seems to be spreading around the globe. As, one by one, the channels begin to go off-air, leaving the crew with the uneasy suspicion that there might be no home to return to, they begin to make plans, driven by the fast approaching winter (and the months of endless night that come with it) and a rapidly dwindling store of supplies.

The bulk of the story is told from the point of view of Jane Blanc, a priest assigned to run Rampart’s chapel, a thankless job that sees her mainly ostracised from the rest of the crew and on the verge of suicide before things start to go wrong in the outside world. Jane’s development from these humble beginnings to the leader of the ragged crew is well-documented and very believable. We follow her as factions form within the crew, and alliances are made, broken, remade. For the first half, this is a zombie novel at one remove: there are no zombies here, but they are out there somewhere, of no danger to our characters. It’s a story of survival against all odds and the characters – and their development over the course of an unknown time period – are brilliantly realised.

Halfway through, the game changes, and infection intervenes, bringing with it a whole host of new challenges for the crew of Rampart. Yes, this is a virus-induced zombification, and it is never made clear how the infection started or where, exactly, it came from. Sure, there are hints, but it’s secondary to the main story here, and the direction Baker takes us means that we never need – nor want – to find out, because we’re too busy following what’s going on. Suffice it to say that the latter half of the novel is closer to the traditional zombie formula, but by no means a rehash of anything that has gone before.

The novel is told in clipped, matter-of-fact tones and short, snappy sentences of the type you’d expect to find in hard-boiled detective fiction. Along with numerous jump-cuts, this serves the plot well: it builds tension, and it helps to remove a sense of time – we have no idea if what’s happening is happening over the course of hours, days, weeks or months. We can guess at various points, but it’s next to impossible to pin anything down for sure. Baker has no such qualms with sense of place: you’re fully aware for the duration of exactly where you are. This is the desolate wastes of the Arctic and it’s cold! That’s not a fact you’ll forget easily as you read.

In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS by John Wyndham

 

The Day of the Triffids

John Wyndham

Penguin Modern Classics (www.penguinclassics.co.uk)

£8.99

John Wyndham’s classic, post-apocalyptic novel turns 60 this year. I first read it maybe 20 years ago, because it seemed to fit in the same category as books like Robert C. O’Brien’s Z FOR ZACHARIAH and William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, both of which were on my GCSE English Literature curriculum at the time. I’ve read it a couple of times since; it’s one of those books that bears repeated visits, and I suspect I’ll visit it again in a decade or so.

The novel is told from the point of view of William Masen, a biologist who specialised in Triffids, which are used as a cost-effective and more sustainable alternative to other edible oils. When the Earth passes through the tail of a comet, Masen is laid up in hospital, temporarily blinded by a Triffid sting and as a result is unaffected by the strange blindness that strikes the vast majority of the world’s population. Emerging into an eerily quiet London, Masen begins the difficult task of finding other people, and picking up the pieces.

TRIFFIDS, despite the title, is a story about human endurance and the stupidity that oft-times overcomes us. We follow Masen and his new-found lover Josella Playton, as they move through this strange new world, becoming affiliated with groups large and small, forcibly parted and eventually reunited, and we encounter the all-too-real horrors that Wyndham has placed in their path: the plague, the violent gangs who shoot first and ask questions later, the crazy Christian fundamentalists – surely Miss Durrant is a fore-runner for Mrs Carmody in Stephen King’s novella, THE MIST – and behind it all the insidious menace of the strange plants for which the book is named.

Strangely, the Triffids seem nothing more than a mere nuisance for the vast majority of the book: 8 foot tall plants with a 10-foot long sting that can kill instantly if it strikes correctly, or often enough. Plants that can be disabled with a single well-placed shot. Masen and company have more trouble with their fellow man than with the man-eating plants whose origin no-one seems to know. But as the novel approaches its climax, the threat that the Triffids pose becomes more apparent. Here we begin to see the first traces of an intelligence that no-one, least of all our narrator, has suspected. As the remaining population begin to form small communities, and move away from the plague-ridden cities, the Triffids begin to make their move, surrounding compounds and waiting for the inevitable moment when they will overcome the man-made defences.

Sure, the language is somewhat archaic – what else should one expect from a piece written in the early 1950s – but THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS holds up well. It could have been written as recently as last year – I imagine the outcome would have been much the same: without electricity, mobile phones, the Internet, where would we be? And if none of us could see, would we fare any better against a strange and deadly life-form over whom our only advantage is sight than our 1950s counterparts?

Wyndham had a flair for these post-apocalyptic visions, and the one thing he always managed to get spot-on was the human reaction to whatever threat he put in their way. TRIFFIDS stands the test of time: 60 years old and remains one of the finest pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written. Expect it to stay with you: there is no neatly-wrapped bow on top of this package. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Wyndham shows you the horror, takes you to a point of seeming safety, the eye of the storm, and leaves you there, with the Triffids lurking just outside the safe zone, to draw your own conclusions.

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