The Earth has newly drowned, submerged quickly by a series of climactic and tectonic disasters. The few survivors were mostly those caught adrift on the rising seas but even they had more to face – a rain-borne disease which, unlike the flood, kills slowly but just as relentlessly, and waters full of sharks with an awakened taste for human flesh.
A small flotilla of vessels – submarines, pleasure craft, ferries and battleships – has tied itself together, having run to ground on the side of a submerged mountain. The effort to survive is hard, both in terms of provisions and in keeping morale and hope alive. When the outcome seems especially bleak, a member of the flotilla is set adrift in a small boat, provisioned for a few days, to search for other survivors. To date none has returned. Someone aboard, though, wants to make life even more difficult, first through acts of sabotage and then through murder. The leader Jim, once a ferry captain, sets Eve, a former detective, the task of discovering the identity of the murderer before the flotilla, and everyone on it, unravels before his eyes.
As an avid reader of apocalyptic fiction, Salt immediately caught my eye. While its murder content seemed, before reading, an unnecessary additional hardship for the few survivors, it soon became clear that the crimes and their investigation work especially well to throw light on the men, women and children aboard as well as their plight. Despite the gravity of the situation, factions abound among this multinational, diverse group of people, including religious fanatics and East End bruisers. Space is at a premium and there is nothing some won’t do to gain more of it. Nobody, though, wants to go into the water. But there are also ghosts aboard in the form of the ill, those who have been stricken by the bug that infests the rain, and they live sealed away in quarantine, waving at the well through the small windows, never to be freed alive.
Not everybody is quite as they seem, including, most surprisingly, the father of the crew, the captain, and this novel is as much about the disintegration of his character as it is about Eve’s dangerous investigations. Jim has secrets and as a result there are greater surprises in Salt than the name of the killer. I did actually guess the identity of the killer some distance from the end but it didn’t matter because I was far too interested in everything else going on aboard, including the relationship between Eve and Marcus, the London hoodlum (although I found his Englishness rather forced in places). I also enjoyed the relationship between Jim and his son and I was moved by the depiction of Eve’s recurring guilt as she remembers how she left her young daughter at home, not knowing that she was leaving her to die all on her own.
There is plenty of action in Salt, especially as the desperation levels rise and the walls close in. There is a strong sense of claustrophobia, despite, or because of, the surrounding forbidden ocean. The central mystery, the one that obsesses the captain, is particularly enjoyable. I would have liked to have known more about some of the other men, women and children aboard the flotilla, as well as some background to the factions. But this does mean that there is plenty of scope for future novels.
Salt is a fast, entertaining read with much to offer fans of apocalyptic fiction and if Colin F. Barnes intends to return to this watery world I will be very pleased indeed.