(2017) G. X. Todd, Headline, £12.99, hrdbk, 454pp, ISBN 978-1-472-23308-0
Defender is the first novel by mobile librarian, G. X. Todd, who holds a HGV license to drive her mobile library around the county where she lives. I suspect she won’t be a librarian for much longer as Defender has earned her comparisons with Stephen King, and not just because of the subject matter, but also her writing style. The subject matter is what happens after the end of the world, although unlike King’s seminal The Stand we do not get the build-up to his flu-plague 'Captain Trips' and what happened afterwards to his cast of characters; here, in Defender seven years have passed since the world ended in a three week white-hot period, or better make that blood-red period when people started hearing voices in their heads compelling them to kill themselves, or kill other people – family, friends, strangers, anyone – before they turned on themselves. Now there is hardly anyone left and those that are left are clinging on, trying to survive, especially against those who have discarded any vestiges of humanity and will take anything, do anything, to anybody to survive. Not everyone who has a voice in their head is a killer, nor have resorted to taken their own life, but if you hear voices you better keep quiet about it, because those who hear voices are not to be distrusted. They are to be feared and at best you might get run out of town, or at worst, you’ll be strung up, beaten to death, shot, or set on fire.
Enter Pilgrim, who hears voices, his own he has given the unimaginative name of Voice. They are constant companions on the back roads through a devastated America as Pilgrim just tries to stay alive, until he makes the mistake of listening to Voice and slowing down at the side of the road where a teenage girl is selling home-made lemonade, a drink which is a thing of the past, and is too tempting to pass up. Pilgrim stops, takes a drink and reluctantly agrees to take the girl – Lacey - with him as her Grandma has died and she is all alone in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Her only kin, is a sister who lives hundreds of miles away, and her niece. She wants to find them, be with them, if they are still alive. The two take the road and stop at the motel from hell, run by a brother and sister who make Norman Bates look tame by comparison, and manage to survive their unwelcome attentions – just and afterwards they find a dead woman in another motel room, and her sister, Alex, tied naked to a shower rail and showing signs of a terrible beating. Two become three and continue their quest and events go further downhill from there as they encounter some good souls, but not many, and many terrible ones like the gruesome twosome Doc and Dumont, while in the background linger tales of The Flitting Man and his followers who is taking away those with voices and burning whole towns to the ground.
As mentioned, King’s The Stand looms large over this sub-genre, though 'Defender' perhaps with its strong female protagonist and big bogeyman called 'The Flitting Man' is more akin to the character Sue Wanda (Swan) and The Man With the Scarlet Eye' in Robert McCammon’s Swan Song his epic post-apocalyptic novel set after a nuclear holocaust, and I was also reminded of the people infected by rage after answering their phones in King’s Cell and of Phillip Pullman’s 'His Dark Materials' trilogy where the characters have a familiar in the form of an animal, which is their soul. Both King and McCammon wrote epics and at over four hundred pages long and with three more books to follow, Defender is the first part of Todd’s own epic, even if it is a dark, grim, unrelenting one, but has the ace card of having two memorable, well-rounded characters in Pilgrim and Lacey. Todd is playing her other cards close to her chest by revealing some things in flash back, but there are a couple of unexpected twists and turns throughout the novel, and...Well, that would be telling, but what an ending, and set up nicely for book two, of course. Count me in for the ride, I’ll just make sure my pump action shotgun is loaded, like my pistol, and I’ve got a knife tucked down both socks and if you think I’ve got a voice inside my head, you never heard it from me.
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