Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Review: 20 Years Later by Emma Newman

I was spurred to pick this book up by seeing the author speak at Edge - Lit, in Derby. She sat on the horror panel, 'Do We Still Need Monsters' (or some such, it was to do with whether monsters are still necessary  in any case - the answer was yes by the way) and I was impressed with the way she came across.  As one of my great loves is a good apocalypse story I thought it was worth picking up her debut novel and seeing what I thought of it.

In all honesty the answer to that, is that my feeling are quite mixed.  On the one hand the world Newman has created is vibrant, realistic and exciting. She ably sculpts a post apocalyptic London that seems plausible and dangerous, with inhabitants and gangs that feel as if they fit naturally into her setting.  The additional details of the gangs make them interesting to read, though they do raise a fair of number of questions; for instance if there are Bloomsbury Boys, why no Bloomsbury Girls?  Women are rare in the book, something which I'm frankly uncertain what to make of, is it a stylistic choice, an indication that Newman's more comfortable writing male characters or a not so veiled nod to the vulnerability of women in a world after an apocalypse with its resultant break down in law and order.

Other aspects are handled well, and in an intriguing fashion, the protagonist and his closest allies development of psychic abilities is nicely written, with Newman using a nice idea of a room where they meet when they're asleep that's almost equivalent to the mental network that John Wyndham uses in the Chrysalids, but with more show than tell.

The story itself, which ultimately concerns the reasons behind the apocalypse and the protagonist's discovery of his identity is interesting but feels slight in places and there's too much that feels unexplored; this is a world that cries out to be revisited and developed further.  There are so many questions to answer, concerning the world's set up, the startling abilities the young people begin to exhibit in the story, the power the Red Queen exhibits over people and whether she has psi abilities, and the events hinted at in the prologue and epilogue that I really hope that there's a sequel or three planned.  It would be a shame to leave the world undeveloped to the extent that it is currently.

The main problems I had with the book were that the characters sometimes felt very shallow and again, undeveloped.  They frequently didn't have particularly strong individual voices and it was hard to get a sense of who they were.  The other issue was the motivation for the apocalypse, which felt out of the step with the world, being caused by racism, rather than what currently feels more topical, religious intolerance (I know that they're only a hair apart but somehow the fact that it was down to the villains wanting to wipe out black people feels antiquated to me, as if it's a hangover from the 20th Century). This also has the effect of transforming the villain into a vaudevillian mustache twirler rather than a serious, credible threat, in a similar way to Alan Moore's penchant for making his villains homophobic.  For all his power, the people working for him, the atrocities he had committed, the reveal of his intentions wipes out any standing he has in one fell swoop, changing him into a one note caricature.

All in all I'd say that it's a good first novel, but one that isn't without its flaws and that cries out for a sequel at the very least.

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