Book Review: The New Wilderness

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

An independent press getting a title on the Booker longlist is a Big Thing for them, even if it can also create headaches due to the cost of complying with the rules the Booker sets on print runs and marketing. Oneworld Publishing, however, has a rare success rate – winning the prize in 2015 and 2016. When their latest release, The New Wilderness, was included on this year’s longlist I was eager to read it.

The story is dystopian fiction, a genre that is proving popular in current times – and worryingly prescient. It is an exploration of how people react when their comfortable world turns toxic. Acceptance is only challenged by individuals when conditions prove personally untenable.

The reader is introduced to a small group of volunteers who have left the City – where pollution is killing their children – to join a monitored study in the Wilderness. Here they survive as hunter / gatherers but must leave no trace of their existence. This means no constructing of shelters or tools they cannot carry. Rangers ensure that they follow the rules set out in the Manual, punishing them for any infractions.

Opening with a stillbirth, the harsh realities of the volunteers’ lives are quickly laid bare. The mother, Bea, leaves the bloody remains of her early born baby to the coyotes, returning to her husband, Glen, and daughter, Agnes, in the cave where the family sleep. Bea finds comfort in items brought from the City – against the rules, she has squirreled them away. Agnes watches everything, listening but not understanding her mother’s behaviour.

The world building is interesting and skilfully rendered. However, when the community sets out on a Ranger mandated journey my engagement waned. There are reminiscences along the way that explain how the original twenty came to be eleven. Although reliant on each other’s strengths and skills, the community members don’t appear to like each other, thinking only of themselves.

“It felt absurd to say, Jane was swept away in a flash flood along with our best knife in this very canyon. The people they were writing to would never get that, even though they’d been sad to lose Jane because she was a good singer, the thing they pined for to this day was that knife.”

To survive the Wilderness, the volunteers become wild. Animal skills must be learned. Behaviour is often base. There is little privacy – even to defecate or copulate. There are frequent battles of wills, displays of brutal self-interest as each seeks dominance. Deaths are accepted, although even in the City this had been a part of how they lived.

“Almost no doctor worked on emergencies anymore because there were no emergencies anymore. Because of overpopulation, emergencies were thought of more or less as fate.”

The story picks up urgency and momentum after the group leave the first Ranger post they are required to visit. Their exploits demonstrate how people turn feral. The focus moves from Bea to Agnes. Unlike many in the community, the youngster is happy with her life in the Wilderness. Despite her age, she seeks to be accepted and respected as an adult, something that is indulged – the few children are all granted greater clemency.

A story of this length needs occasional changes of direction and this comes with an unexpected encounter at the next location the community is sent to. As a result, the balance of power within the group shifts. At first this felt staged but the author’s reasoning soon became apparent – a continuation of the world building.

Outside of the Wilderness there is little of the natural world. Housing is dense with the population educated to work only jobs that are necessary. There are mentions of mines, servers and processing plants. Rumours of Private Lands, where people may live in comfort and plenty as they once did, are widely regarded as a fiction.

The community’s Ranger enforced, nomadic existence is called into question when members ask why they mostly adhere to the strict rules. Agnes in particular believes she could easily survive if granted freedom. She is angered by the adults’ overriding fear of being returned to the City – a place she barely remembers.

There are many disturbing episodes to consider. Humanity is not portrayed as benevolent. As reader sympathy shifts with greater understanding of the wider picture, the tension rises to prepare for the trauma of the denouement.

Any Cop?: What at first appeared a standard dystopia has the bar raised by the quality of writing and uncompromising approach to human self-interest. The world created is frighteningly believable. This is a widely accessible addition to the Booker list.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Station Eleven

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, opens with the death of a famous actor, Arthur Leander, while on stage playing King Lear. The theatre is in Toronto and outside a snowstorm is approaching. Witnesses to the actor’s collapse, along with those close to them, form the cast of characters the story will swirl around as it moves backwards and forwards along a timeline spanning several decades. Arthur’s deathday is also the day the Georgia Flu arrives in North America, carried in by passengers traversing the world by aircraft. The known and accepted modern world is about to radically change.

Shakespeare lived in a London coping with recurring outbreaks of plague. The virulent illness that wipes out most of the population in the contemporary setting of this tale is even more devastating. Survivors are few and basic infrastructure soon fails. Systems taken for granted – tap water, electricity, mechanised transport, medication, long distance communication – are no longer available. Food must be grown or hunted locally. Items such as clothing and weapons are scavenged from the remnants of the lost civilisation.

Twenty years later a company of musicians and players travels between small communities in the Great Lakes area providing entertainment – mostly classical music and Shakespearean plays. Their mantra is ‘survival is insufficient’ and they are usually welcomed as a distraction from the limited locality people now inhabit to stay safe. The dangers inherent in the early years, after the pandemic decimated North America’s population, have largely receded. Still, though, there are those who will kill to attain their own skewed agenda. Amongst them is the Prophet whose acolytes believe their names were inscribed in the Book of Life, and that those who died were being punished for their sins. This is not the only cult in the slowly recovering territory.

When the travelling players encounter the Prophet they do not heed the warnings until it is too late to avoid the effects of falling under his gaze.

The backstories to key characters are presented, weaving them together. Celebrity and success are explored alongside ambition and various relationships. An underlying theme is one of regret when one’s actions and life trajectory are considered with hindsight. What turns out to be important may not be that which demanded so much time and effort.

Although quite obviously dystopian, I found the story uplifting. Those living in the small communities mostly help each other, working for the common good. There are dislikes and transgressions – people remain flawed and some do terrible things. With man’s footprint on earth limited, however, nature thrives amongst the ruins of his former creations.

The writing is fluid and compelling. Moments of reflection and tension are well balanced, easily maintaining reader engagement. The story is immersive and consistent, with pleasing touches such as the recurring comic book motif. The denouement pulls key threads together whilst allowing for ongoing speculation.

With a more literary bent than many novels in the genre this could appeal to those who normally eschew fantasy fiction. I found it an enjoyable and satisfying read.

Station Eleven is published by Picador.

My copy of this book was given to me by my daughter.

Book Review: Only Ever Yours

Only Ever Yours, by Louise O’Neill, is set in a dystopian future where ice caps have melted, sea levels risen, and survivors are concentrated within three main zones: Euro, America and Chindia. In the early days of this new world order the people who survived wanted only boy babies. Potential parents purchased gender specific fertility drugs. Unwanted daughters were considered unworthy of increasingly scarce resources and were dumped in mass graves. With families unwilling to countenance raising girls, extinction loomed as a possibility.

“Genetic Engineers were forced to create women to ensure the survival of the human race. And since they had the opportunity, it would have been foolish not to make necessary improvements in the new women, the eves.”

These lab grown babies are placed in nurseries until they are four years old when they move to schools. For the next twelve years they are educated for their role in society. Some will become companions to the Inheritants – the boy babies born more naturally – and be required to birth and raise their sons. Others will become concubines, providing whatever sexual favours the Inheritants demand. A few will become chastities and help educate the next batch of girl babies.

The rules state that women must be beautiful, look youthful and weigh in at a target weight.

“Fat girls are disgusting. Fat girls are lazy. No one will ever love a fat girl. […] Fat girls should be made obsolete.”

Women must be calm, quiet and compliant, never crying or showing any signs of Unacceptable Emotions. Failure to follow the rules can lead to being sent Underground or to the Pyre. Those women who please the men sufficiently may continue to exist until their Termination Date. Even those who are granted a redesign to preserve their youthful looks are not permitted to live beyond forty years of age.

“All eves are created to be perfect but, over time, they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for improvement.”

The story is told from the point of view of sixteen year old frieda as she enters her final year of school. Her best friend, isabel, has become distant over the summer break leaving frieda unmoored and afraid. She has a deep seeded need to be accepted, harbouring thoughts that she is not good enough or beautiful enough. She feels forced to try to befriend megan who oozes confidence and uses her acolytes to ensure she retains her power within their year. megan is ambitious and voices frustration when she is not provided with benefits she hears others are granted elsewhere.

“I can understand her wanting to leave the Euro-Zone, with its four thousand inhabitants and increasingly limited budget, but most of the world’s money is in Chindia now. It may have been the Americas who came up with the idea for the Noah Project, but it was the Chindians who funded the development and construction of the Zones. Np one else could afford it.”

Over the course of the school year the reader learns of life within the school and the limitations girls are required to accept. In the final few months, under strictly controlled conditions, they begin interactions with the Inheritants. These boys will then choose who they want as their companions, most of the remaining girls being transported to the Main Zone to become concubines.

The opening chapters set the scene and introduce this appalling world. Towards the middle of the book the pace slows, the daily activities and concerns growing repetitive. There are only so many descriptions of clothes, shoes, hair styles and make-up along with associated insecurity, jealousy and bitching that I wish to read – even though it is this preoccupation with female looks that is being addressed in the tale. The tension ratchets up as the Ceremony – when the girls will learn what their future is to be – is just a few days away. The denouement is devastating yet perfectly encapsulates the society that has been created.

The author writes in her Afterword

“It is the story of every teenage girl who secretly believes that she doesn’t belong and that she probably never will. It’s the story of every woman who feels under pressure to look a certain way, to conform to a certain behaviour, and who doesn’t even understand why she does so. It’s the story of what it even means to be a woman in a world that constantly devalues you just because of your gender.”

Written with young adults in mind this is a book that can also be appreciated by an older audience who may benefit from a reminder of the pressures faced by young women in our contemporary society. Despite my criticism of the pace, it is a story well worth reading.

Only Ever Yours is published by riverrun.

My copy of this book was given to me by my sister.

Book Review: Wolf Country

Wolf Country, by Tünde Farrand, is set in a future dystopian England. The rise in cost of supporting welfare claimants – the old, the sick, the disabled – was regarded as economically unsustainable so the elites changed the system. Only they may now own property, living in fenced off tracts of land in the countryside or in exclusive high rises in the city. Others – those capable of earning their Right to Reside – are provided with a home in a redeveloped area of a city, its size and facilities based on their monthly spend.

High Spenders populate the salubrious areas with Mid Spenders aspiring to join their ranks. Low Spenders are given little space and less security. People who run out of funds – non profitables – are either sent to a walled off wilderness known as the Zone to die amongst gangs of criminals or, if they had been consistent spenders for enough years, retire to a Dignitorium where they will be looked after for a set period of time before being terminated.

The story is told from the point of view of Alice, a school teacher married to an architect, Philip. On Boxing Day he goes missing, presumed dead in an explosion at a shopping complex. Distraught at her loss Alice struggles to cope, especially when she realises their extensive savings are severely depleted. Instead of looking forward to the expected promotion to High Spender, she faces the prospect of a future downgrade.

Chapters move around in time to offer glimpses of Alice’s childhood and then courtship with Philip. Her older sister, Sophia, had been a keen proponent of the new social order, going as far as to turn in a non profitable family member who resisted the local authority’s demand that they enter a Dignitorium. Alice hasn’t seen or spoken to Sophia since she left the family home to marry the son of an Owner.

Dignatoriums are not just for the elderly. Anyone who cannot maintain the prescribed lifestyle as a profitable member of society is regarded as an unacceptable drain on resources paid for by the hard working. Non profitables are openly castigated with anyone supporting them accused of selfishness in allowing them to live.

Philip’s father, a talented artist, lives in the Zone where he has somehow managed to survive for several years. He disapproved of his son’s choice of wife, regarding Alice as a willing puppet of a deeply flawed and cruel system. When Alice tries to find out what happened to Philip she gradually uncovers the truth behind the propaganda she has accepted all her life.

The denouement offers a salutary lesson. Although a bit much in places for my tastes, the clever final lines once again raise the bar and leave a strong impression.

Given contemporary attitudes to those in need – the rise in hate filled rhetoric and blaming of the poor and displaced – this is a chillingly believable depiction. The writing style brought to mind Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with Alice’s compliant acceptance of the brain washing that ensures propagation of blatant consumerism and dehumanising of the needy or aged. The structure and flow are well balanced with moments of tension adding to reader engagement. This is an addictive and worryingly prescient read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

Book Review: Last Ones Left Alive

Orpen has been raised on the island of Slanbeg, off the west coast of Ireland. She has known only two other people in her life – Mam and Maeve. From reading old papers and listening in on conversations she has gleaned that these two women once lived in Phoenix City but managed to escape. They have instilled in her the knowledge that the mainland holds many dangers. There are the skrake – powerful, crazed, half dead beings who hunt the living and whose bite will turn their victim into one of them. There is hunger because, since the Emergency, the plentiful supplies of foodstuffs people once took for granted are now scarce. And there are men. Neither Mam nor Maeve have explained exactly why but Orpen understands that men are to be feared.

Last Ones Left Alive opens with Orpen taking a bitten Maeve east in the hope of finding Phoenix City. Mam is dead. Orpen brings with her a crate of chickens and her dog, Danger. She has been trained since she was seven years old to tackle the skrake. Nevertheless she is afraid – she has been raised to fear this place. The island was safe but also lonely. She has a deep anger that Mam and Maeve refused to answer her burning questions and now it may be too late. They regarded her as a child to be protected when she felt a need to understand the reasons the world changed.

The Ireland in which this story is set is a dystopian future with many familiar elements. The rules appear to favour the suppression and control of women. The skrake are the stuff of nightmares.

Told from Orpen’s point of view, the timeline jumps between the girl’s past and present difficulties. It could be a coming of age tale. Dig deeper and it is a study of loneliness, trauma, grief, and the power of determination. Orpen feels anger that Phoenix City, a place where other people may live, has never been explained to her. All but alone now in her world, she is afraid it may not exist.

The writing is taut and vivid with a strong sense of place including a lingering Irish vernacular from the young narrator. Encounters throughout add volatility. Alongside the violence is the risk inherent in trusting, and the mental difficulties of solitary living.

At times I questioned the direction of the plot but the denouement provides a satisfying conclusion. Not all questions are answered but plenty is inferred and a circle is completed. This could easily be the start of a series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: The Feed

The Feed, by Nick Clark Windo, is set in a world where communication and curation of experiences has moved almost entirely on line. To enable individuals to manage this, a brain implant has been developed that allows users to access data and upload content using their thought processes. The Feed offers news and social media; it allows for private and public settings, group chats and on line ordering of goods. Everything is backed up so memories have become data that may be accessed and shared at will. Advertising is individually tailored with updates on a subject’s health and desires monitored in real time, enabling purchases to be made. Reading and writing are regarded by many as obsolete skills.

The protagonists of the tale are Tom and Kate, a young married couple expecting their first child. Tom dislikes the ubiquity of The Feed and urges Kate to spend time with him off line. Having become used to instant access of any data desired this is a difficult ask, and one her family disapproves of as they expect to always be in touch. Tom’s antipathy towards The Feed stems from his upbringing. His father created the technology and Tom was the first child implanted in utero. He resents that he has been treated as an experiment with the lack of empathy and potential risks this entails.

In a world that has become reliant on technology, chaos ensues when The Feed goes down. It is not just the on line access that has failed. Certain users appear to have changed personality, taken over by inexplicable, deadly urges. Nobody can predict who will be next, or who they will kill.

The timeline jumps forward six years. The population has been decimated with many remaining people and animals turning feral. Tom and Kate are living in a makeshift camp with a few other survivors trying to eke out an existence without the practical knowledge of how basic implements and machinery can be made to work. Growing up they had no need to learn such things as they could refer to The Feed for all information. Now those who have any memory of skills such as electronics, filtration systems or growing food are valued. They still, however, require fuel, and other camps will fight to the death to protect what they regard as theirs.

The lack of trust between groups of people reminded me of Mad Max, the lengthy journeys undertaken of Lord of the Rings. There is no fantasy element but there are perils and a need to push through pain and lack of sleep. The explanation as to why certain people were changed required a leap of faith but was adroitly introduced.

As with any dystopian fiction there is behaviour redolent of today. The users of The Feed gave little thought to the environmental cost of their continual consumption. Those who chose to opt out were regarded as eccentric and not taken seriously. After The Feed went down the world became a desolate place to be. The fight to survive was violent and intense although it made me wonder, not for the first time, if our world would be better without the human race.

I read this book in a day which demonstrates the taut construction of the plot and the skillful flow of the writing. At its heart is an exploration of what defines an individual. It may be bleak but this is a compelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Defender

Defender, by GX Todd, is the first book in a proposed series set in a post-apocalyptic America. The Voices have arrived, from place unknown, with a purpose that is unclear. They occupy the minds of human hosts and fill their thoughts with despair. Mass murders and suicides follow. Those who are left must scavenge abandoned resources to survive. The breakdown of society results in everyone being deemed a potential threat, and with good cause.

Lacey is a teenager, protected from the ongoing social disintegration by her grandmother, until the old lady dies. Left alone in a remote farmhouse, Lacey concocts a plan that will enable her to join her older sister who lives many miles away.

Pilgrim encounters Lacey by the side of the road and is persuaded, against his better judgement, to offer her a lift. Pilgrim is swayed in his decisions by The Voice inside his head.

The pair set off together but almost immediately find themselves in mortal danger. It is the start of a fast paced, deadly adventure.

A disparate group led by two sadists are sifting towns they pass through for survivors. When they capture Lacey they regard her as a disposable plaything, until they realise that she has information of value. They have not counted on her determination, nor on Pilgrim’s decision to offer his protection.

The writing is taut and slick with the fast moving action keeping the reader engaged. The unrelenting violence felt exhausting in places – in many ways it reminded me of the Mad Max world.

The bad guys are very, very bad. The good guys are capable of exertion despite horrific injuries, a lack of sustenance and limited sleep. The world portrayed has many intriguing elements. Explanations are drip fed but often rather vague.

Although acknowledging the many strengths of this book I retain reservations. I appreciate that the bad guys’ behaviour is a part of the dystopian world created, but a more nuanced approach would have appealed.

This story would likely work well on screen, and it is an enjoyable enough read. In such a fictional world it feels churlish to desire more human realism.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Gather the Daughters

Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed, is a dystopian novel that rings all too possible in a world ruled by zealous men. Set on an island, the exact time or place never specified, it revolves around a community whose elders, the wanderers, ensure that no knowledge of the world beyond may be shared. Rules are rigidly adhered to, the aims of the founding fathers both cherished and feared. Impropriety is viciously punished by family or, at worst, public shaming.

Within this community the girls are required to submit to their fathers and then husbands, willingly and with grace. They know of no other way to live. Each summer the children are allowed to run free, a break from the rigidity of their community life. For the girls this annual freedom ends as soon as they bleed. Marriage is mandatory once they can conceive.

Each girl may bear a maximum of two healthy children; defectives are not permitted to survive. Once children have borne children the grandparents drink a final draft. Those who can no longer contribute are deemed a burden and join the victims of childbirth or disease, becoming fertiliser on the farms.

The wanderers bring goods from outside, referred to as the wastelands, but no other islanders may leave. They are told stories of fire, plague and desolation to instil loyalty and fear. Few openly question how items that appear wondrous can exist in such a barren land. Those who do ask are ignored, persistence silenced.

The story follows a group of girls who dream of changing how they must live. Such a lack of willing submission will not be tolerated by the men who benefit.

Vanessa Adams knows that she is nearing her first bleed. She is fond of her father despite what he does with her, what every daughter must submit to. Mr Adams is a wanderer, proud of his status and the good house where his family reside. He permits Vanessa to read the books he has collected from the wastelands and commends her intelligence. She is eager to know more of the world beyond their island but cannot pierce the veil of secrecy that enables this way of life.

Amanda Balthazar is married to Andrew and expecting their first child. Desperate to get away from her father she had looked forward to this stage in her life. When she is told that the child growing in her belly is a girl a sense of dread descends from which she struggles to emerge. The idea of a beloved daughter having to submit to a father, which her kind-hearted Andrew will soon become, is more than she can bear.

Janey Solomon is older than the other unmarried girls but has starved herself to prevent the bleeding. She does her best to protect her younger sister, Mary, but despairs that she cannot keep her safe forever. It is Janey who arranges an illegal gathering, getting the island girls together in an attempt to make them question the truth of all they have been told to keep them compliant. She suggests that another way is possible and perhaps exists elsewhere.

These three girls set in motion events that will shake the community to its core. The hopelessness of their situation resonates, the sickening righteousness of the men as they guard their all-powerful positions evocative of many religions.

The writing is taut and engaging even though the content is deeply disturbing. I had no idea how these girls’ stories would end, and I needed to know.

A powerful, dark tale of the powerless attempting to assert themselves; a warning to women everywhere of the compliance some men still crave. Although challenging this tale is unreservedly compelling. The issues raised linger beyond the final page.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: Mortal Engines

mortalengines

Today I am posting a review of a book originally published in 2001. Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve, is aimed at young adults but has now been enjoyed by everyone in my household. It was passed to me by my sometimes reluctant to pick up a book younger son with the words ‘you should read this, it is very good’. I concur. It is the first intalment in a quartet of novels focusing on a futuristic, steampunk version of our world. At my son’s instigation, I will be reviewing the entire series in the coming weeks.

The story is set in a post apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by a Sixty-Minute War which caused massive geological upheaval. To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes, and other instabilities, communities were established on Traction Cities which move around on huge engines and wheels. These behemoths attack and dismantle other cities for resources, citing what is known as Municipal Darwinism as necessary for survival. Although the world has since become stable, Municipal Darwinism has spread. Much technological knowledge was lost during the war. Because scientific progress has almost completely halted, Old Tech is highly prized and recovered by scavengers. Europe, some of Asia, North Africa, Antarctica and the Arctic are dominated by Traction Cities. North America was so ravaged by the war that it is often identified as the dead continent. The rest of the world is the stronghold of the Anti-Traction League which seeks to establish land based settlements and thus stop the intense consumption of the planet’s remaining resources.

The tale opens on London where a young apprentice historian, Tom Natsworthy, abandons his tasks in the Natural History Museum to watch his city chase and capture the town of Salthook. Amongst the captives of this place is a badly disfigured girl, Hester Shaw, who attempts to assassinate a highly regarded senior member of London’s ruling Guilds, Thaddeus Valentine, who is Tom’s hero. In an attempt to impress both Valentine and his beautiful daughter, Katherine, Tom attempts to detain Hester when she flees. This results in both young people being ejected from the city and left for dead in the barren wastelands over which the city chase occured.

Hester is determined to return to London and kill Valentine, whatever this takes. Tom, having never before left the moving city, has little choice but to travel with her. Gradually he learns what happened to her and why she is seeking revenge. He begins to examine the tenets on which he has been raised.

The pair find themselves embarking on a series of daring adventures during which they are captured to be sold off as slaves, rescued by the pilot of an airship, hitch a ride with pirates, and visit land based settlements where Tom comes face to face with the barbarians he has been taught wish to destroy his progressive culture. Throughout they are pursued by a deadly, mechanised creature intent on Hester’s demise.

Back on London, Katherine is trying to piece together the mystery of why a young girl would wish to kill her beloved hero father. What she discovers causes her to question everything she has thus far known.

The action has many imaginative twists and turns involving a fabulous cast of characters. There are numerous amusing references to our contemporary world alongside traits of human nature which have not changed. The writing is polished and engaging, with sufficient depth to avoid moralising or schmaltz. The author is not afraid to kill his darlings.

An imaginative page-turner and worthy recipient of its many accolades. Recommended for competent readers of any age.

Book Review: When the Floods Came

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When the Floods Came, by Clare Morrall, is set in a future Birmingham, England. A virus has wiped out the majority of the population of Britain resulting in the whole island being quarantined by the rest of the world. Climate change has caused unpredictable weather – freak snowstorms, intense heat, and winter floods that take months to dissipate. Survival is possible throughout the country due to there being so few people to use the resources left behind by a previously advanced and acquisitive society, but the majority of the sparse population choose to live in Brighton where the government attempt to control essential services and supplies, along with access to information.

The protagonist, Roza Polanski, lives with her family in an empty tower block on the outskirts of the old city centre. Her mother and father, Moth and Popi, refused to heed advice and relocate south. Unlike most survivors their fertility has not been affected by the virus. They have raised their four children and ensured they are as well educated as possible under the circumstances. They recognise that young people are to be valued in a land with so few people, but have not grasped just how enticing and valuable a young child now is within an aging population lacking the ability to procreate.

Through her work for a Chinese technology company Roza has met Hector on line. She finds him clever and funny so has agreed to their engagement. Young people are required to marry before they are twenty-five years old. Hector plans to cycle to Birmingham and then escort Roza and her family to Brighton for their state sanctioned wedding.

Although Moth and Popi are wary of living within the constricts of government control their children are excited about gaining access to others of their age. The only people they have had contact with are those of their parent’s generation, and even they live so far away that visits are few and far between. Brighton beckons and the children secretly hope that they will be permitted to remain.

Just as Hector is about to set off on his journey to meet Roza for the first time face to face, a stranger is discovered in the tower block where the Polanski’s have made their home. This enigmatic young man, Aashay, ingratiates himself into their family life, winning them over one by one. The frisson Roza feels when they are together disturbs her. His claimed first hand knowledge of their country brings into question the official view of events as provided by the government censored computer systems.

Aashay offers the possibility of a life lived beyond the laws laid down in Brighton, suggesting that there are more survivors in the surrounding countryside than the Polanski’s had realised. What he does not reveal is why he wishes to instigate change in their routine and plans, what may be in it for him.

The dystopian future that the author has created is stark yet believable. The writing is gentle on the surface but there is a sharp undercurrent of brooding malice. It is not just the weather that is dangerous, nor the precariousness of solitary survival. There may be safety in numbers but greed creates danger.

It is hard not to compare this to Margaret Atwood’s dystopias and it stands up well beside such impressive works. An enjoyable read that made me ponder how much we now take for granted. The denouement may be disturbing, but it says much about modern sensibilities and current suspicion of central control.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre.