“ Genre: Sci-Fi & Fantasy / Author: Richard Herley / Kindle Edition „
Having read and enjoyed The Penal Colony by Richard Herley, I bought another of this author's books from Amazon for my Kindle which is currently the only format available. At just under £2 it wasn't going to break the bank and I discovered it was money well spent as this turned out to be another gripping futuristic thriller of a novel. The author himself states on his blog that this is his 'least favourite child' but personally I think he's being far too hard on himself as this book certainly had me hooked from the first page.
It's 2029 and is twelve years since a global plague wiped out the population leaving John Suter still alive and believing he's the sole survivor but when he finds a body in the river he knows that may not be the case. What he discovers upstream makes him reassess his understanding of his fellow human beings and also begin to question his own moral code.
Any book which deals with human survival and the breakdown of society in the chaos following some apocalyptic event is probably going to mirror such works at Lord of the Flies and the TV series Survivors in some respects and this book is no exception though it also offers much originality of thought. Richard Herley has already proved, to me at any rate, that he's a first rate storyteller and his creation here of a dystopian society rings true in practically every respect from the initial breakdown of all the familiar trappings of society to the forming of post-apocalyptic communities, packs of feral dogs and the overriding need for humans to believe in something better than the life in which they find themselves.
The story is told in the third person and mainly from three perspectives, that of John Suter, a lone survivor, Philip Davis and his fellow villagers, and Bex and some of his followers. Bex is a sociopath of the worst kind and leader of a gang of feral youths. Each of these viewpoints builds up into one big picture of a world thrown into chaos where only the strong and the adaptable survive and it's pretty obvious that many of these survivors are teetering on the edge of sanity.
John Suter is a somewhat reluctant and definitely flawed hero. He seems to have some mental health issues of his own, either as a result of living alone for so many years or a hangover from his life before the plague. In fact, he seems to display certain characteristics I'd associate with being somewhere at the lowest end of the autistic spectrum. Whatever the reason he's found some kind of peace living his solitary existence. When he examines the corpse in the river, it's apparent that this young man was murdered and Suter resolves to find the settlement from where the victim came and observe it from a distance. He doesn't want to leave his home and decides that if the settlement is of fewer than 15 people, he'll kill them all. Not exactly the thinking of a totally sane person. When Suter makes contact with Muriel, one of the villagers and learns what's going on there, he doesn't initially want to help, although he does give her a hand gun and tell her how to use it. When things go awry, however, Suter has no option and the battle lines are drawn. It's the classical good(ish) against evil but it's anyone's guess which side will win in this new and morally questionable world.
The village was founded by Phillip Davis, who isn't really cut out to be a leader. He's an ex-civil servant making him somewhat intransigent in his views which are carried forward into this new community he's forming. His daughter, Helen, also survived and it was Helen's husband, Martin, whose body Suter found in the river. Martin was brave enough to stand up to Bex but to no avail it seems but there may be others within the community who will be prepared to make a stand once they discover there may be help from outside.
Bex, of course, is the personification of evil. He may only be in his early twenties but he's already crossed the Rubicon with regard to his loss of humanity. Like all sociopaths, he's completely lacking in moral conscience and his every thought and action is egocentric. He has a high IQ, far higher than any of his followers and he has no compunction is manipulating these people into subscribing to his skewed religion, based on Satanism with a fair amount of cannibalism thrown in for good measure! He and his band of followers move from community to community, destroying all that is good and decent.
I'm sure in such circumstances as the World's population have found themselves here, many people in society would probably turn to a higher power whilst many others would completely lose any faith they ever had. Suter falls into the latter category and when Muriel discovers he won't help the villagers, she tells him she'd been praying for a miracle and had thought God had answered her prayers, his immediate response is 'God's like that. Bit of a practical joker.' The opposite side of the coin to Christianity is Satanism and that is the rallying point Bex uses to attract his followers, easily impressionable young men, some whom are similarly cruel-natured but some who've followed sheep-like to begin with but now have to stay through fear of reprisals once they've seen the depths of depravity to which Bex will go.
There is a lot of sex and violence in this story, none of it overly gratuitous but nevertheless it's pretty horrible and Richard Herley doesn't spare the reader's sensibilities. Bex is sexually omnivorous and has no compunction in torturing and raping males as well as females and this, coupled with his megalomaniacal insanity make him a truly horrendous creation and some of his actions are quite stomach churning, especially so as we're also given access to his thought processes at times.
This is a very well crafted novel with believable characters acting in believable ways. The characterisation is good with all the players, not just the main protagonists, being well drawn and the plot is fast paced and exciting and it left me wanting more.
I feel that much of the setting and many of the actions of these plague survivors is very well reasoned. I'm pretty sure that society would break down very quickly following such a worldwide pandemic and the veneer of civilisation be rubbed away to leave many people behaving in ways little better than the animals we undoubtedly are. Look no further than the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler and the SS or the oppression of people under Communist rule which was equally as ruthless and cruel and, even more recently, too, with some of the actions of the likes of Gaddafi and Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad.
Apart from the sex and violence which some readers may find distasteful, I did feel rather let down by the fact that the author sees a future where women would be relegated once more to being little more than ciphers and hope that, come the apocalypse, this prophesy won't come to pass!
This view of Britain's future makes for quite uncomfortable reading at times, especially in light of last summer's riots in England which gave something of a taster of how quickly some elements of society can break down and the damage they can wreak. It certainly isn't beyond the realms of possibility and that really is where the true horror of this story lies. This, or something very like it, could actually happen one day.