Category Archives: Apocalyptic

Clade by James Bradley

Titan Books | 2017 (5 September) | 301p | Review copy | Buy the book

Clade by James BradleyOn a summer solstice, some time in the not too distant future, scientist Adam Leith waits by the phone in Antarctica to learn if his wife Ellie’s fertility treatment has been successful at last. As he reflects on the meaning of his marriage in his life, the frozen landscape around him is changing. But it’s not just Antartica. The Earth is being irreparably altered by extreme temperatures and weather. One can only wonder at what sort of world this child might be born into.

Moving through the years, we witness the experiences of Adam and Ellie, their child and their grandchild, as the world is battered by storms and heat, as the birds stop singing and are lost from the skies, as the floods rise and as death arrives in the form of a great plague.

Clade is a novel in several parts. Much of it focuses on Adam, his wife Ellie and their grandson Noah, presenting snippets of their increasingly changed lives, mostly in Australia but also in a Britain battered by storms and rising waters. These chapters are almost like short stories, complete in themselves, presenting different perspectives and different elements of these years of crisis.

This structure does, in my opinion, distance the reader from the emotional impact of what we’re witnessing but it does serve to illustrate the many ways in which this slow-moving apocalypse affects people, nature and the Earth itself. There is a particularly poignant chapter in which Ellie is drawn to bees and the man who cares for them. We know how poorly bees have been doing in reality in recent years and this book gives us a reminder of just how precious they are and how wonderful they are. For me, the most touching moments were those when characters reflect on how quiet the woods are now that the birds have gone. What a devastating state of affairs.

Noah is arguably the standout character of the novel. Autistic and isolated in several key ways, he must cope with constant shifts in the best way he can. And as he grows he finds that comfort in astronomy and the constancy of the stars. He is beautifully drawn. And a source of hope.

Science fiction is present in lots of little ways – in the technology of people’s ‘feeds’, in the virtual reality games they play, and also in the development of AIs. But there can be no doubt at all that this is a novel with a warning to the present. Just look at what can happen. There are moments of trauma and crisis – such as storm and plague – but in between there is the slow inevitable decline to which people must continually re-accustom themselves.

There is room for development in each of the chapters or stories of the novel – these chapters are very personal and, as such, venture little beyond the experiences of the characters except through media reports – but I was spellbound and horrified in equal measure. Not because of the shocks and thrills of what happens but because of its quiet inevitability and the reasonableness and calm with which characters cope. We hear of refugee camps and gunbattles in the streets, but this goes on outside the walls of the novel. The world we’re given is recognisably ours.

Clade, such a beautifully written and expressive novel, is both elegant and powerful. It is quietly terrifying. It gave me nightmares for the two nights that I read it. Horrible nightmares. So to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading Clade wouldn’t be true. In these uncertain times, it spoke to me and it frightened me. It is bleak – but not without some hope, not least in the resilience and caring of its main characters – yet I found its sadness harder to deal with. Nevertheless, I was gripped by it and troubled by it on a scale that I don’t often experience.

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Defender by G.X. Todd

Headline | 2017 (Pb: 10 August) | 480p | review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Defender by GX ToddThe world as we know it has ended. Just a few short years ago the majority of people listened to the voices in their heads that instructed them to kill – friends or family, strangers on the street, and then themselves. Those who survived have learned to hate and fear anyone with a voice inside their head, and with good reason, but what they might not know is that among the survivors there are those who still hear Voice, but its new words are not what they would expect. Pilgrim lives with Voice in his head and when it tells him to stop by the side of the road and buy homemade lemonade from Lacey, a young girl with nothing but her courage and brains left, he does what he’s told.

So begins Pilgrim and Lacey’s road journey in search of Lacey’s sister and niece. Lacey insists that they’re still alive, although she hasn’t seen or heard from them in the eight years or so since the world’s fall into bloody violence. Pilgrim has nowhere else to go and so, driven on by Voice and then by another waif that they collect along the way, he takes on his new role of protecting Lacey, keeping Voice very much to himself.

Defender is the first of a series of four novels called The Voices and takes us into territory reminiscent of Stephen King’s finest novel (in my opinion) The Stand and Todd’s homage is a fine tribute. The world building is absolutely fantastic, with its long stretches of dusty road, abandoned by all but empty vehicles and the occasional solitary soul or, and these should be avoided, mysterious convoy. Houses, towns, motels are places of refuge, supplies and the utmost danger. After eight years of apocalypse a lot of things are running out. Life hasn’t yet found a way. People have become feral. This is frightening stuff, especially when you realise that one of the main characters is a young teenage girl who is having innocence forced from her with almost every step of the journey.

There is nothing safe about this new world and Defender takes us into some bleak places and situations. Predators lurk and Pilgrim and Lacey have a knack of falling into the wrong hands. This includes sexual violence which, I will admit, is not something I like to read about and so I did skim these sections while wishing that they weren’t there. To me, these scenes didn’t come with the significance or resonance I felt they would have in reality. But this is just a thing of mine and so is my fault rather than the novel’s, which has a great deal of difficult themes to contend with and otherwise does so brilliantly.

Pilgrim and Lacey are both such deeply involving characters to follow. Pilgrim in particular is fascinating and I grew very fond of him. The novel moves between the two and so we spend good time with them both. Voice has a personality of its own and it plays such an intriguing and effective role. I loved its tone and couldn’t wait to learn more of it. How characters deal with having such a voice in their heads constantly is a big appeal of the novel and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this develops in future books.

This is the first novel in a series and so there is much still to be revealed. There are rumours of other travellers, of people on the hunt for those who can hear Voice as well as much more that is barely touched on at this early stage. It leaves the reader prepared and ready for more. But there have been shocks along the way and we know that in the second novel much will have changed.

Defender finishes at a good point. There may be more to come but it is also pleasingly complete in itself and so is a very satisfying read. It’s disturbing and menacing, dusty and heated, and it is also immersive and extremely accomplished. G.X. Todd writes so well. The way she gets into the heads of her characters is wonderful and what she does with them is both shocking and thrilling. This is one of those books that does not let you put it down. It keeps you enthralled from start to finish and is a fast and exciting read. Not only is Defender the first in the series, it’s also Todd’s debut and is an astonishing one – it’s hard to imagine a better beginning to The Voices. Who knows where they’ll take us next? I’ll be listening.

The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey

Orbit | 2017 (4 May) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Boy on the Bridge by MR CareyBritain is no more. The Breakdown destroyed it. The land now belongs to the Hungries – altered, infected and no longer human, these lost souls live only to feed. A few enclaves of uninfected humans survive, but not many and they’re under constant threat. Only two outcomes are possible. Either the Hungries will devour the last of the uninfected or an antidote will be found. The first is far more likely than the second. But hope persists.

The Rosalind Frankie, or Rosie, is an armoured vehicle that has embarked on an epic, perilous journey from the south of England to the Highlands. Aboard is a group of soldiers and scientists, existing side by side in the most limited of space. Their mission is to recover biological samples placed across the country. Whether they will live to return with them is another matter entirely. But their responsibility is immense. Time has run out. They know they have to succeed. Six soldiers and six scientists live and work aboard Rosie and each has their own personal tale of survival and hope. Each has something to live for and they all have everything to fear. The pressure on them is so immense that it’s only a matter of time before the cracks appear and then each must look deep within themselves for the strength to cope.

Among the scientists is Stephen Greaves, an autistic boy, and Dr Samrina Kahn, who has more reason than most to fear for her future. These two find themselves drawn together while everyone else wonders what on earth Stephen is doing there. But Stephen is very special indeed. When he looks outside he can recognise something else that hides out there among the Hungries and he can look it in the eyes.

The Boy on the Bridge is the follow up novel to the enormously successful (and now filmed) The Girl With All of the Gifts. It’s been a while coming but it is most certainly worth the wait. It isn’t a straightforward sequel. It doesn’t pick up on Melanie’s story but in her place is another fine set of characters to enjoy as they develop through the pages, continuing the tension between the military and scientists, and also within these groups. There is good and bad in both. So you could read The Boy on the Bridge without having read The Girl with All the Gifts first without any trouble at all, but I do think you’d be missing out on the development of this shattered world, as well as the emotional power of a couple of key scenes.

The writing is as brilliant as ever, loaded with personality and opinion, sharp and incisive. There is horror, so much of it, and you can’t look away from it, it’s so gripping and thrilling, but there are moments of peace and calm as well. Rosie really feels like a refuge despite its claustrophobic spaces. Outside, by contrast, is such a scary place. You wouldn’t want to go outside. But Stephen does.

I’m no fan of zombies, whether in novels or movies, but there’s something about the Hungries that fascinates me, especially those that we meet in The Boy on the Bridge. We’re asked to re-examine what they are and, although this means confronting deep fears, it is so compelling, as well as tragic, sad and gory. There are moments in this novel when I shed a tear, that’s how much I cared for these characters (especially Kahn) and for how well this story (and world) has been developed through both novels.

M.R. Carey is a great storyteller with a fantastic imagination, bringing apocalypse and hope together in the best of ways. I loved this portrait of a devastated Britain, with the mix of the familiar and the irrevocably altered. The descriptions are wonderful. At its heart, though, are its people, non-Hungry or otherwise, and they power this unusual horror novel on. Will there be more? I really hope so.

Other reviews
The Girl With All of the Gifts
Fellside

Skitter by Ezekiel Boone

Gollancz (Atria in the US) | 2007 (UK: 27 April; US: 2 May) | 329p | Review copy| Buy the book: UK; US

Skitter by Ezekiel BooneSkitter is the follow up novel to The Hatching so please make no attempt to read Skitter until you’ve read The Hatching first! This review assumes you’ve done just that and you are ready to have your skin creep and crawl in the most deliciously terrifying way once more. As one of the characters puts it, welcome back to the Spiderpocalypse!

The first wave of spider attacks has ended in the withdrawal and deaths of billions of spiders. Unfortunately, they took with them the lives of many millions of people from around the globe. China is a nuclear wasteland and many of the world’s greatest cities lie in ruins. But any hopes that the desperate might have that the attack is over, that the world can rebuild and repopulate, are soon dashed. Scientist Melanie Gruyer’s continued work at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland has revealed a terrible fact. The first wave of spiders was simply paving the way for the second – feeding it, preparing the ground. And this second wave could take mankind to the very brink of extinction. The US President Stephanie Pilgrim is prepared to do the unthinkable to safeguard the nation’s future. But is it too late? Around the world, something unbelievably terrible is beginning to stir.

To say that I adored The Hatching is a ridiculous understatement. I love apocalyptic thrillers and I especially enjoy these novels when they focus on weather disasters (have you read The Tsunami Countdown by Boyd Morrison yet? Why not?) or beasts, particularly the creepy crawly kind (such as Invasive by Chuck Wendig). If ever there was an animal that lends itself brilliantly to wholescale mass panic and annihilation, it’s the spider. Personally, I don’t mind spiders at all. But as for these spiders…. these spiders scare me to death.

Skitter continues the fabulous formula of The Hatching. The novel’s focus is on the US, and most (but not all) of the principal characters are based there, but it also includes many stories from across the planet, including France, Germany, India and, especially, Scotland. We move between a cast of many characters, some of whom we meet just once (for obvious reasons) but there are others that we return to time after time as they either fight to survive or to overcome. We met a fair few of these in The Hatching and it is a joy to return to them, not to mention a relief that some have survived this far. I don’t want to mention who, just in case you’re reading this with the intention of going back to The Hatching.

Skitter might be the middle novel of a trilogy but it is a fantastic disaster thriller in its own right. The novel copes with the aftermath of The Hatching while preparing us for the showdown of the finale, setting it up absolutely perfectly. But Skitter oozes tension, horror, panic, dread, disgusting deaths, hideous spiders, shocking pain and stunned outrage – not only aimed at the spiders but also at the lengths governments will go to for the longterm survival of the human race. All well and good in theory but a lot less noble when you’re running for your life.

We’re thrown into the action from the outset and it never lets up until the very last page when we’re left longing for the concluding novel. Skitter is such a fast read and it is so well written, each page contributing to the overall story. It’s not the sort of thriller you want to put down unread and its pace is pushed along even faster by its brilliant structure that moves us from one state of tension to another and then back again, time after time.

Prepare to get the shivers, prepare to never look at a spider in quite the same way again. Remember what Jaws did for sharks – this time the sharks are tiny, have legs and there are billions of them. Fantastic!

Other review
The Hatching

Survival Game by Gary Gibson

Pan | 2016, Pb 2017 | 343p | Review copy | Buy the book

Survival Game by Gary GibsonSurvival Game completes Gary Gibson’s Apocalypse Duology that began with Extinction Game. This means you definitely need to have read Extinction Game first, although each book could stand alone if you force it to. This review assumes you know what happened in the previous novel.

In a universe of alternate Earths, scientist Katya lives on an Earth dominated by the Russian Empire. It has her in its cruel power, holding her family hostage, while she attempts to uncover the secrets of a mysterious artefact, the Hypersphere. It is believed that the Hypersphere was created by the Stage-Builders, or Syllogikos, an ancient civilisation that built the first transfer stages which opened doorways between the parallel Earths. It is suspected that the Hypersphere could prove to be an even more powerful conduit but there’s a snag – it’s broken. But the authorities have learned of the existence of a second sphere, intact this time, on another Earth, one that is controlled by America. Katya is ordered to travel there in disguise as a scientist from that other Earth’s Soviet Russia. Once there she must use all means to bring the Hypersphere back to her own Earth, where the Tsar has his own plans for it. Katya has no choice.

Survival Game returns us to the alternate American base on Easter Island, the home of the Pathfinders, individuals who each survived, completely alone, their own Earth’s apocalypse. Their mission is to explore the other Earths to search for artefacts that can help explain the reasons for the apocalypses which have plagued most of the parallel Earths, wiping out the Syllogikos. Jerry Beche is once more our guide to these worlds as he is tasked with helping the science team to discover the secrets of the Hypersphere. But what he and Katya learn has devastating consequences, the very worst.

From its explosive and thrilling opening chapter, Survival Game immediately throws us into the heart of the action, into the conflicts of these alternate Earths where everything seems familiar in some ways and yet so different in others. On the Earths that have survived, democracy has suffered the most, both in the alternate Americas and the alternate Russias. But the transfer stages take us to other Earths that are utterly horrifying and plagued with the terrible legacies of apocalypse and it is on these worlds that Katya and Jerry must fight for their lives while also discovering, in the most vivid and immediate ways, the horror of what the Syllogikos faced in their final days.

I am a huge fan of Gary Gibson’s novels and have read a fair few over the years – Final Days remains one of my most loved novels of all time. While I don’t think that this Duology is Gary Gibson at his best – it lacks some of the wonder and vision that I find in the others, having more of an action movie feel about it – I can’t fault it as a science fiction thriller. It has some enticing (and some terrifying) ingredients – the ends of worlds, monsters, traitors and spies, mysterious artefacts, villains, intrigue and a splash of romance – and these keep the pages flying through the fingers.

The novels complement each other well. They contain separate stories but the larger picture continues to increase in size and clarity, and new characters work well with the old. It was great to meet Jerry Beche again, although Katya more than stands her own against him. There is some fantastic worldbuilding as we travel to devastated haunted dead worlds. Its ending is thoroughly satisfying while allowing room for Gary Gibson to return to this universe – or universes – in the future. But what I enjoyed most of all about Survival Game is the utterly compelling story of the Syllogikos and the apocalypse that ended them. In these sections in particular Gary Gibson demonstrates wonderfully his brilliant storytelling and extraordinary imagination which will always make me read every novel he writes.

Other reviews
Angel Stations
Stealing Light (Shoal Trilogy I)
Marauder (Shoal Universe but standalone)
Final Days
The Thousand Emperors (Final Days II)
Extinction Game

Bite by K.S. Merbeth

Bite | K.S. Merbeth | 2016 | Orbit | 344p | Review copy | Buy the book

Bite by K.S. MerbethKid could have been no further than a day or two away from certain death when she was picked up in the desolate, waterless, poisoned post-nuclear wasteland by Wolf, Dolly, Pretty Boy and Tank. It’s not long at all, though, before Kid wonders if certain death might not have been the better option. For Kid has fallen into the company of Sharks, despised by just about everyone else for their disdain of humanity’s last taboos, and they seem to have adopted her as their pet.

It appears that there is a new force in this desolate toxic world and he has put Kid’s new ‘family’ high on his hitlist. Wolf’s gang must find him before he finds them and so they have a journey ahead of them and it is not going to be easy. There will plenty of opportunities for Kid to prove herself worth keeping. There will be even more opportunities for Kid to die an unpleasant death – or worse.

This is a world in which few have a real name. Better to have a nickname, that way you might not become too attached. The older generations, the ones who made it, remember the bombs, living in bomb shelters, but for youngsters like Kid, they only know the scramble for life in the buried ruins of towns and cities alongside angry survivors. Kid’s new companions are a broken bunch, each with their own scars, entirely untrustworthy, ruthless, killers one and all. But there’s something about Kid. She seems to bring out the best in the worst.

Bite takes us deep into Mad Maxy post-apocalyptic territory and presents us with a thoroughly entertaining, fast, funny, revoltingly gory adventure that I gulped down in a couple of sittings. The desolate setting is really well depicted. This is an ugly, ugly world. But there is humour to be found in all this ugliness. After all, if you don’t have a sense of humour in this poisoned world, you might as well give up right now. And the humour shines through. Even a dismembered corpse can be funny when the alternative is slitting your own throat.

There are some grotesque characters here for sure. The Queen is especially memorable and I kept trying to think who she might be based upon, certainly nobody I’d want to meet down a dark alley. Kid, on the other hand, is a delight. She’s a youngster and she still sees the world with a young person’s eyes – she never gives in, never gives up hope. Dolly stands out among the Sharks – this is a damaged woman indeed and I really liked how the author presents her. Dolly is almost a robot but, for Kid, just occasionally, Dolly remembers ever so slightly how to smile.

I don’t know if K.S. Merbeth will treat us to another novel set in this universe but I really hope so. It’s such a fun adventure but the characters are the stars, even when they’re at their most despicable. There is nothing heroic about the Sharks – they can’t afford to be selfless if they want to survive – but I’d welcome the chance to get to know them better. From a safe distance. There is a glut of post-apocalyptic thrillers out there at the moment but Bite is one that stands out well and truly from the crowd.

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Good Morning, Midnight | Lily Brooks-Dalton | 2016 (11 August) | W&N | 272p | Review copy | Buy the book

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-DaltonAugustine is a man who has lived his life removed from all attachments, commitments and relationships, ready to travel across entire continents just to escape the voice of longing in his heart. Now, an old man, approaching the end of his days, he has reached as far as he can go – the Arctic where he observes the heavens. The world is so far away but one day it arrives in the form of a panicked evacuation of the science station. Something terrible is happening to the Earth. There can be only one plane out. But while all of the other scientists rush home to spend whatever time there is left with their families, Augustine stays behind. Now he has achieved what he always thought he wanted – completed isolation. Yet, as the sun makes its first appearance on the horizon, marking the end of the long Arctic winter, Augustine discovers that he is not as alone as he had thought. A child, Iris, has been left behind.

Meanwhile, far out in the solar system, Mission Specialist Sullivan (Sully), is about to return to Earth from Jupiter where she and her fellow crew members have been conducting a historical, extraordinary survey of the planet and its moons. But the celebratory mood aboard the Aether stalls when Mission Control suddenly falls silent. And it’s not just Mission Control. No sounds at all can be heard from what was once the solar system’s noisiest planet but is now every bit as silent as all of the others.

Good Morning, Midnight is the powerfully moving tale of how a few people, very possibly the last survivors of Earth, endure the silence and loneliness of a future that is no longer certain. We move between two strikingly beautiful and remote environments, the Arctic and space, both untouched by whatever has turned the lights off on Earth. The interaction of the characters with these environments is key to the atmosphere and mood of the novel as these survivors learn to find comfort where they can. The fact that these environments are also dangerous and potentially – if not probably – deadly adds to the uncertainty of mankind’s survival.

This is not a typical apocalyptic novel. We never discover what has happened. We are as isolated from events as anyone else in the novel. This is instead a moving and haunting, beautifully-written, tale of human endurance, with Augustine and Sully spending as much time reflecting on their past, facing up to their regrets, as they worry about the present and future. While Sully has to contend with the job at hand of getting her spaceship back to an Earth that may or may not be waiting for them, Augustine, an old man, must fight to give Iris some kind of future. And that is how the novel is shaped – the quest of both characters to make sense of their lives now that it is so clear that memories may be all they have left.

Once I realised that my expectations were not going to be met – I was expecting an apocalyptic SF thriller of some sort – I found myself absolutely hooked on the beauty of this novel. The environments are stunningly drawn, the bleak beauty of the Arctic contrasting with the wonder of Jupiter and its moons, and they are matched by two fascinating characters whose voices, lives, regrets and hopes are captivating.

I didn’t find it perfect. The ending (or at least one half of the ending) left me conflicted, even a little frustrated, and, to be honest, I still can’t decide what to make of it. Nevertheless, I found Good Morning, Midnight to be a compelling, eloquent and memorable read for lots of different reasons, not least the stunning writing and the complex and intriguing characters of Augustine and Sully, and I’m so glad I read it.