I think it’s fair to say that there has been a rise of late in the number of dystopian/post apocalyptic novels being released. I’m more than happy with this! I really enjoy this genre of novel and love the imagination it can produce, as well as the commentary it can call into play upon our own society. Yet with the rise in these kinds of novels there are undoubtedly many familiar tropes and plot devices which we often see played out again and again. Novels which have come before, The Handmaid’s Tale being one such example, set a benchmark for later authors, inspiring their own works. I have no issue with clever similarities being used, but I always look for a dystopian novel which has its own clear voice and original ideas.
When I read the brief summary of G X Todd’s debut novel, Defender, I was immediately intrigued. Although vague in its approach, this summary brought into sharp focus the impact of voices within the novel; specifically, voices inside someone’s head which do not belong to their own thoughts, a distinct and separate entity. With many people led on by the whisperings in their head, urging them to violence and horrific brutality, the world has turned on itself, civilisation destroyed beneath the blood of these victims in a post apocalyptic life. In what is left of the world, hearing voices is a dangerous ability, something not understood and to be feared. When Pilgrim, a solitary man, listens to the voice in his head urging him to stop at the long lost scene of a girl selling fresh lemonade, a story is set into motion, their meeting perhaps more than mere chance. Together they begin a journey through what is left of the world, a world where the voices inside your head might save or slaughter you in equal measure.
This novel really hits it off to a spectacular start with its strange and unsettling opening. This comes in the form of an open letter written to a stranger by a girl named Ruby. Ruby talks of her friend, a man believed to be suffering from dementia because of the voices he hears in his head. Yet the voices are real, and on his deathbed the friend bequeaths this voice to Ruby herself. Despite its open address, the letter feels almost personal, as if we are being directly spoken to, which only increases the sense of eeriness. Likewise, Ruby implores us to remember that ‘all the deaths weren’t for nothing’, and that ‘wisdom can sometimes be mistaken for craziness, and that strangers can often be friends in disguise’ (p. 2). With these strange bits of information suggestive of a world inverted of all that we know, the author is able to implant ideas into our mind which refuse to be ignored. What if the people we view as mentally unstable or ill are actually the ones who are closer to the truth? What if everything we think we know is actually a lie, a society established upon misinformation and false stereotypes? These ideas strike an unsettling chord, immediately drawing a reader in.
From here we move into the main chapters of the story, finding ourselves following the journey of what will become our main characters; Pilgrim and Lacey. This transition from the first staged narrative device was incredibly smooth, with the author showing us her skills at building and creating the world around them. What I was especially impressed with as the novel changed narrative direction was the sense of complete desolation which was evoked. In many ways I found this to be highly reminiscent of some of the early scenes of The Walking Dead, where we see the cast moving amongst eerily quiet streets, the sense of devastation and the unease of an imminent attack highly present. One scene in particular which I thought was hugely reflective of the destruction was one in which the character of Pilgrim finds a bottle of unopened beer. He is elated, and through him we can feel the unshakeable desire to taste a forgotten beverage. The bottle is quite literally a ‘lost token of a world gone to ruin’ (p. 8). Even so, Pilgrim does not allow himself to drink from the bottle, instead merely swirling the taste around his mouth before spitting it out. He cannot take the risk that the contents have spoiled and are no longer safe to consume, meaning that even this symbol of the former world is ultimately denied to him. Small scenes like this really captured the bleakness of the environment.
Another thing I think this author executes well is the brutality of this dystopian world and the sheer violence which now dictates how things operate. It is this aggressive nature, seemingly devoid of human compassion, which informs readers just how changed the morals of society have become. This is seen further by the authors choice to include young children, with the acts they both witness and commit creating a disturbing contrast with the sense of innocence so associated with childhood. Indeed, the author doesn’t shy away from challenging topics including physical abuse, rape, murder, torture and much more. These topics were explored in such a way that they seemed entirely plausible within a world which has changed so psychologically. Whilst the author does describe in graphic detail some of the upsetting scenes, I did not find the novel particularly gruesome. In fact, much of the acts are described quite lightly, with much being insinuated and left to the imagination. In all honesty, I wish she’s actually amped up this sense of vivid violence to shock me ever more thoroughly.
I’ve already mentioned how the novel mainly follows the characters of Pilgrim and Lacey, and I think its clear to see that the author wrote these individuals with a clear contrast in mind. I think she pulled this off well and a tension was certainly created between the pairing of two people so different in gender and age. Having said that, I do think this is a trope seen quite often in dystopian fiction, as well as the more broader fantasy genre. Whilst I enjoyed the pairing nevertheless, it is not the first time I have read of a standoffish, rough man forming an unlikely alliance and friendship with a young and fairly innocent child. Young females in particular seem to be at the forefront of many novels in general now, an idea with I certainly champion, but still crave originality from. On the whole, I think I actually preferred the character of Pilgrim and the sections of the novel which focused more closely on him. There was something about his stony faced exterior and gruff appearance which really enticed me. The author holds a lot back about his past and his memories, and this only made me all the more eager to uncover how he came to be in this position, and how his past has shaped him into who he now is. By contrast Lacey is a character who seems to be much more transparent.
Reflecting upon this novel, I can see that my reading experience did not quite sustain the same level of interest throughout. As I’ve already mentioned, I loved the brilliantly unique opening and the unsettling atmosphere it created. This continued as I met Pilgrim and more of the other characters. Despite this initial excitement, I did feel the novel dipped somewhat during the middle portion. A large part of the novel is focused upon the characters undertaking a journey, and whilst there is action inbetween this, I felt it lost some of the spark which had first fuelled the book. It became more generic in its approach, appearing in many ways as more of an adventure novel than the strange dystopian world first promised. I think this was largely down to the fact that I wanted to learn more about the voices and how the world so imploded in the first place. Having said that, I do now know that this is the first in a series, and as such the author was clearly trying to establish her world and style, bringing her readers into a relationship with the characters for what she has set up in the future. Whilst the end of the novel did pick back up again and focus once more on the original selling point of the voices, I still felt that the middle section had lost some of its steam.
For a debut novel which aimed to create an entirely new world and concept, I think the author has executed her world extremely well. In fact, one of the things which so impressed and amused me was the knowledge that the author is actually a librarian! I am well aware this is highly stereotypical, but it is somewhat of a mind boggling idea to think of someone in this age old profession writing a novel which such sadistic violence. I just adored the thought of such conflicting preconceptions. She’s certainly challenging not only gender stereotypes, but also professional ones, and I cannot wait to read the latest installment in this series.
Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent this book in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own honest opinions, and will NOT write a favorable review in exchange for a complimentary book.