Steeple | Jon Wallace | 2015, Pb 2016 | Gollancz | 249p | Review copy | Buy the copy
Steeple follows on from Barricade and, although its story is self-contained, you wouldn’t want to read the second without having read the first. And so the review below assumes that you’ve read Barricade.
There’s not much left to Britain since it was torn apart in a war between humans and the artificial creations they built to make life easy – Ficials. The land is lawless, many of the few who survived suffer from a disgusting contamination illness that turns their skin and organs blue, and London is drowned. The Steeple was once London’s crowning glory – an enormous, sky-touching tower for the superwealthy, a self-contained vertical city, engineered and built with the help of Ficials. But now the Steeple barely stands, teetering over a London in ruins, inhabited by all manner of survivors (most of whom are utterly terrifying and hideous), but nevertheless the subject of religious superstition and venal greed – one not necessarily excluding the other.
Kenstibec was once a Ficial, an artificial organic life form of immense strength and resilience with the power to heal from the most catastrophic wounds in no time at all. Kenstibec had been an engineer in the old days before the increasing hostility between humans and Ficials demoted him to butler and taxi driver. But now even that is in the past. Kenstibec has become Ken, he is now nothing more or less than a human, with a body as frail as everyone else’s. But even harder to deal with than that is his understanding that he is now no different from the humans around him that he had been taught to regard as little better than insects. A Ficial is not supposed to like humans. But when one particular human that he has come to know well through no fault of his own suggests that Ken comes along on his dangerous, possible suicidal mission to discover the hidden riches of the Steeple, Ken reluctantly agrees. The human in question is Phil but Ken knows him only as Fatty. Once Fatty looked at Ken with nothing but fear in his blue-tinged weeping eyes but times have changed for both of them.
Steeple is the follow-up novel to Barricade, a dystopia as dark as its humour, and immensely entertaining despite the underlying tragedy and despair of this destroyed Britain. It’s good to see Fatty and Ken again. Fatty is calmer, even better at scrambling for survival than he was before. As with Barricade, the story is narrated by our inhuman human, Ken, but the change in Ken is obvious. Fatty is becoming a person to Ken at last, even perhaps a friend.
Without doubt, the relationship between Ken and Fatty is a real highlight of this novel. We’re only given one side of the story, Ken’s, but Fatty has clearly warmed to Ken (it helps knowing Ken doesn’t want to pull him to pieces any more), and the dialogue is great! Ken seems to have developed a sense of humour, along with an unhealthy obsession with a dog that everyone else wants to eat. Having a non-human, who is trying cope with being human, narrate the story is an ingenious touch by Jon Wallace and it means that we warm to a Ficial in a way that would have been impossible with a human narrator.
Not, mind you, that we’re entirely on the side of humans in Steeple. Some of the people that our increasingly bloody and desperate heroes meet along the way are absolutely diabolical. I almost had to read some of it with my eyes closed. There is ample gore here, doled out by some of the most revolting people I’ve encountered in a novel for quite a while.
The premise of Steeple works extremely well. The action is more confined than it was in Barricade with much of the novel spent within the Steeple itself. The tower reminded me a little of Judge Dredd, giving off a similar kind of mood – claustrophobic, dangerous, full of traps and menace. But this is no ordinary tower, as is hinted at in the flashbacks which flicker throughout the book.
Steeple is a short, thrilling read. I had my nose glued to it and finished it in a day. It is thoroughly exhilarating, its dystopia as dark as can be but lit by the fantastic writing, tight structure, edge-of-seat action sequences and the deliciously warped humour. At times it is surprisingly emotional and touching. I really enjoyed Barricade but if anything Steeple is even better!