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K S Merbeth
Orbit, 27 July
I'm grateful for an advance copy of this book from the publisher.
Merbeth returns to the world of Bite with another story set in the Wastes. Years after the bombs fell, this part of the US (and, we infer, the world) is a barren, scorched landscape where nothing will grow. The survivors are either “townies”, huddling together in desperate attempts at defence, or “raiders”, stealing from the townies.
The worst of the raiders are "sharks", who see townies and raiders alike as nothing more than meat. (Yes, this book contains cannibalism).
In this world, a bottle of clean water or a tin of food is wealth, as is a knife, a good gun or a stash of ammunition. Clementine is good at getting all of these: a bounty-hunter, driven by the pursuit of revenge against the raiders who burned her town and killed her parents, she works for desperate townies, taking out the worst of the raiders - for a fee. And she's very good at what she does.
The story follows straight on from the events described in Bite, but it's not really a sequel and features a very different protagonist from Kid, Dolly Tank and Wolf. Focussed on Clementine, it's more single-minded, getting under her skin and exploring the effect on her of a hard life and showing what that life has made her.
In this story, Clementine takes on a commission to hunt down the worst, most feared raider king, the famous Jedediah Johnson himself, about whom many tales are told. Acting on inside info, she finds a way into his base. But has she bitten off more than she can chew? Can she get out again - and if she does, is there anyone who would dare pay out on him, and can she find them before Johnson’s vengeful crew track her down?
And - most puzzling question of all - who wants Jedediah taken down?
A bloodstained roadtrip through the Wastes beckons, featuring some memorable violence, gut-wrenching betrayals and one of the most nihilistic settings I’ve ever come across. It’s basically a Western but with everything dead or waiting to die. Great reading if you aren’t worried about there being hope, and Clementine is a spiky, scary protagonist who can – just – make the reader sympathise with her, despite the things she does.
It’s best, I think, not to dwell on the logistics of Merbeth’s world – with (presumably) a finite amount of food, water and ammo left from Before, life here (and death) really is a zero-sum game, what’s left of humanity basically a pack of rats fighting over dwindling stocks. “You’re all dead” the reader may wish to shout at the characters when the action slows “what’s the point?”
But the action doesn't slow often, and the sheer pace and zing of the storytelling carries you through on the rare occasions when it does. A breathtaking read, best done in one go. (Just take a careful look the next time you eat a nicely cooked bit of meat...)