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Orbit, 26 July 2016
Source: Advance copy provided by publisher.
If you like bloodshed, mayhem and chaos - and don't we all, even if we'd rather not admit it? - then this is the book for you.
"Kid" (we never learn her real name) is stumbling along in some benighted post apocalyptic wasteland, possibly in the western part of what had been the United States. It is some years post a nuclear war (at least sixteen, as she was born after it ended). Her father is missing: we know nothing of her mother. Essential supplies - tinned food, water, medical stuff, petrol, weapons - seem to be limited to what was stockpiled Before, and are the subject of desperate bargaining (and conflict).
The badlands are (thinly) populated by desperate people: starving "townies", "raiders", "sharks", outright crazies, a would-be "Queen" running a trading post/ brothel. No-one trusts anyone else and there is no order or authority. Existence is nasty, brutish and short.
In this hellish world, Kid stops a car one day... and it contains Pretty Boy, Wolf, Tank and Dolly. These are all nicknames - real names are never used for someone who could be dead tomorrow morning. They're a desperate crew: look at the cover of the book, and the name, for an idea of the lengths they'll go to.
Is Kid safe with them?
Of course not.
Can she bear live the way her new gang do?
Well it would be nice if she could take some time to work that out, but time is just what she doesn't have. With her new "friends" she's immediately plunged into a series of desperate situations: betrayals, firefights, captures, escapes, injuries and losses follow one another in dizzying succession, leaving this reader pretty numbed. While there is a discernible plot behind this, it's mostly not very important. Someone is, it seems, hunting Kid's crew down. If they can ever just get out from under for a moment they'll turn round and start hunting that someone in turn - but generally they have enough to do simply staying alive.
In many respects the book resembles a game (video or old fashioned RPG) with a series of encounters, "treasure" to be gained in the form of those hoarded supplies, combat (LOTS of combat) and a big battle at the end (if you can ever reach it).
It would be daft to overthink this book. You might for example wonder how all those scattered communities can actually exist - but that would make as little sense as worrying about, say, the economics of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. In either case you'll be totally missing the point. The book is shallow in the best way, incredibly good at what it tries to do and, I found, very satisfying for parts of me that books don't often touch.
That said, Merbeth does draw her characters very well and the Kid, in particular, is sympathetic - a strong character, but rather sad: the way that she finds a home with her new crew and faces up to the life she has lost, and the new life she has to live, is very touching. She is also, despite everything, a rather moral person in a vile world. (There may also be some unreliable narration going on here - do we really believe that she's such an innocent as is suggested, given that she has actually survived, alone, in this ghastly waste? maybe... or maybe not. You'll have to make up your own minds on that, I wasn't sure.)
The other members of the crew are also well done, none of them saints (especially Pretty Boy) but all with their own sad stories.
Overall, an action packed, glorious read full of drive, destruction and - in the end - triumph.