Defender - GX Todd
Defender - GX Todd ***
The nature of a post-apocalyptic world is one that we are becoming increasingly familiar with from numerous recent books and movies. Everyone should be prepared for it and you'll all know by now just what it takes to survive; carry a gun, keep to yourself, keep moving and trust no-one. The question of what causes the disaster that is coming any day now won't make much of a difference. Whether it's a virus, an environmental catastrophe, an economic collapse or a nuclear holocaust (the most likely candidate at the moment), you're safer off alone. Inevitably however, people are drawn together to seek extra protection or share resources, and when groups get together, that's when the trouble really starts.
G.X. Todd's Defender, the first in a four-part Voices series, doesn't stray too far away from a fantasy/horror template that has been largely defined by Stephen King's The Stand. The nature of the disaster here isn't immediately clear, but it has resulted in a severely depleted population and a large proportion of burnt-out towns. The remainder of the survivors live fending for themselves in the ruins of America, or belong to new communities of savage and paranoid people. What has brought society to this point would seem to be related to persistent voices that have lodged themselves in the heads of some of the population, often pushing suicidal urges.
One of the people who is subject to an internal voice is Pilgrim, but he seems to be managing well enough on his own, riding his bike across the charred landscape, minding his own business and not slow to use his gun when any stranger approaches. Something however - maybe it's the voice in his head or just the cool homemade lemonade she has made - makes Pilgrim stop at the side of the highway and agree to take Lacey to a town over on the other side of the state. 15 year old Lacey has been living on her own ever since her mother died, and her only relative is a married sister who lives in Vicksburg. There are going to have to get themselves out of a few scrapes before they get there.
A lot of the situations in Defender are familiar ones, and the outlook on human nature revealed by a global apocalyptic event is not a pleasant one. It seems that when disaster strikes, those who survive will transform into marauding paranoid rednecks. Aside from Alex, a girl that they manage to rescue along the way, the latent psychopath seems to have won the day within everyone else that Pilgrim and Lacey meet along the way. There's a shocking amount of what seems like unnecessary rape, brutality, torture and murder throughout the book. There might however be a reason for that, and it might have a lot to do with the 'voices', but it's not the kind of thing you want to read about at this kind of length.
For the most part, Defender is very much a case of running from one dangerous post-apocalyptic battle to survive to another, and I have to say I struggled to get through the latter third of the book. On the other hand there are a few reasons why you might want to keep reading through to the end of this first book and on to the next three books of the series. There are a few mysterious figures (that include Ruby, Hari and a so-far unseen Pied Piper figure known as the enigmatic Flitting Man) as well as hints, theories and rumours about the nature of how the 'voices' epidemic has come about that remain intriguing and are likely to have further implications down the line. The author's reference to a speculative medical condition raises some interesting possibilities in this area.
The main reason why you might want to stick around in the battered and broken lawless landscape of the USA that the author sets out in the first book however is for the characters. Good people are hard to come by in Defender, and the definition of what constitutes 'good' might have to be re-evaluated for the circumstances, but the fate of Pilgrim, Lacey and Alex, the few things we learn about their backgrounds and the dilemmas they each find themselves in are (just about) enough to get you through the horror elsewhere, and maybe even beyond to the following books in the series.
Defender by GX Todd is published by Headline.