Writing any kind of post-apocalyptic story must be quite daunting. What could possibly be said that hasn’t already been said before concerning the human condition once society collapses? One way around this is to invent a new way of bringing about the end of the world. In G X Todd’s debut novel Defender it appears to be the voices in people’s heads that drives them to murder and suicide, until only a few un-afflicted remain.
It’s been a few years since normal life ended as people discovered the voices in their heads were driving them to commit atrocities. We meet Pilgrim, who has a voice of his own, which is known conveniently as Voice. He appears to be at peace with this, but also a bit of a loaner. Until he stumbles across a young girl – Lacey – selling lemonade by the side of the road, but otherwise very alone. Her grandmother, who had brought her up, passed a few months back. Lacey is now hoping someone will take her to the town where she hopes her sister and niece are still alive. Pilgrim hides the presence of Voice from Lacey, who has her own internal conflicts to deal with. Voice is fun – sarcastic and often right!
The ingredients of a post-apocalyptic road-movie seem to be all present and correct here. The gruff loaner on the bike. The spunky child who softens the loaner up. The gangs that take what they want, including women and children for their ‘pleasure’. The hick with a heart (or at least not so evil as the rest). A desperate character, running from something. A mythic figure who has risen from the ashes of the horrors.
As Pilgrim, who battles internally with Voice, and Lacey head into the unknown, a series of semi-predictable events lead them to picking up abuse survivor Alex, and come across the mysterious Red. This latter whispers the word defender, or maybe defend her, as she loses consciousness. But Red has escaped from a gang led by Charles and the sadistic Doc. They capture Alex and Lacey, and leave Pilgrim for dead. And this is where things start to get a little more interesting.
Suffice to say, there is a fair bit of nastiness and cruelty in Defender. Especially towards the women in the book. If G X Todd was male, this would be problematic at best. What Todd does is present the strength of the female characters throughout. They won’t be crushed by the men, even after such horrific abuse. The characters are all fairly likeable and rounded, despite looking a bit clichéd from a distance. Lacey, although just a child, wants to understand Pilgrim, and help Alex, as well as find her sister and niece. Pilgrim has a softer side.
The story is told from both Pilgrim’s and Lacey’s perspectives, which means that they don’t always know what’s going on, and why the apocalypse happened at all. They have doubts about this mythic figure – the Flitting Man. Part of the reason why I enjoyed Defender is because so little is explained. Todd’s world-building is fine and mostly exposition free. The reader learns only what the characters know. Todd mitigates the obvious references throughout. The journey, the horrors and the unexplained nature of our protagonists’ predicament echoes McCarthy’s The Road. I’m sure that the mysterious Flitting Man is a nod to Flagg in The Stand. In one scene, in a library (books should all have scenes in libraries of course), Pilgrim picks up Day of the Triffids, and I am Legend amongst others. Todd acknowledges the shoulders she stands on.
There isn’t a whole lot of depth and nothing new to learn about humanity here. The darkness is something we’ve all read before. The descriptions of the violence are standard fair. The premise is intriguing enough and the mystery surrounding it is nicely handled, while not being wow-inducing or particularly innovative. I’m still not 100% sure about the whole ‘defender’ thing either. Where is it going? What does it mean? Is there a point? The plot point that turns the book on its head isn’t hugely believable, but the conclusion is pleasing enough. The coda and the fact this is also known as The Voices #1 left me with an appetite to find out what happens next (see above re: defender), without being blown away. However, the interactions between Lacey, Pilgrim and Voice, along with Todd’s eminently readable prose style, makes Defender a worthwhile addition to the genre.
I received this e-book via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.