2015 was bang on for apocalyptic fiction – my favourite kind of horror – and this novel from Snowbooks was the last I read. With a pitch-perfect dystopia, plenty of violent action, and a raft of absorbing characters, it was one of my top reads of the year and ensured it finished on a thoughtful and explosive high.
The setting of “Hell’s Ditch” is the north of England, 20 years after some kind of holocaust. Civilisation has grown from the ashes but poverty is rife, life expectancy is low, and the country is ruled by a brutal dictatorship. Using a highly trained militia known as the Reapers, they favour public executions for insubordination, genetic experimentation, and use firepower and fear to control.
Naturally, not everyone does as they’re told. There are warrior tribes out in the wastelands who answer to nobody, and also pockets of urban resistance operating in the cities, sick of the Reapers living well as everybody else suffers in a misery of disease and violence. These rebels are grievously short on numbers, weapons and opportunity, but when a presumed-dead heroic figure of the rebellion called Helen Damnation reappears, she brings fresh hope. Especially as she might be able to enlist the help of the hardest man on the planet.
Gevaudan Shoal is a Grendelwolf, and the last of his kind. A huge and modified human being, he was created to be a machine of war with immunity to pain, extraordinary self-healing powers, and an alarming capacity for killing. Helen wants to use both old grudges and morality to entice him from the hermit’s life he’s embraced and help fight the Reapers.
I just fell into this perfectly-paced and very well written book. Only a few pages in, we find Helen Damnation with a young rookie called Danny being pursued through the shanties and grim city streets. This is high-octane writing that Simon Bestwick does so well, and it’s testimony to his subtle skills of characterisation that I invested so immediately.
In fact, it’s the characters that really hold this great story together. From the main players to the bit parts, they’re complicated and realistic with their individual hopes, beefs and baggage. Helen Damnation is deeply damaged after losing her family and being buried in a mass grave, driven by her goals at the expense of rationality. Danny is a cocky but likeable young lad thrown in at the deep end, in possession of both courage yet a sensitive heart. Unlike some of the older characters, he doesn’t mourn for the old world as he knows nothing else. Other resistance characters include Helen’s experienced mentor Darrow, who brings a jaded wisdom, and Alannah, an emotionally-scarred woman who was tortured by the Reapers and for whom Danny begins to develop feelings.
But the real jewel in the resistance’s crown – and indeed the whole book, for me – is Gevaudan Shoal. Living alone in a derelict district named Deadsbury, the only survivor of his synthetic species is a glorious character. He’s seen pure hell and slaughtered countless people because of what he is, but he has principles, a nobility and stoical dignity. Hilariously droll at times, he’s also fond of manners that seem quaint in such a gritty world and is capable of touching humanity. It’s impossible not to root for him, and his character also paves the way for some satisfying righteous violence when he tunes into “the fury”. This resembles the rampage setting on a video game in which his already devastating killing powers are cranked up to nitro-boost levels. What I also love about Shoal is that despite having the most reasons to be insane, he’s actually one of more level headed and pragmatic of the bunch. Brilliant.
But it’s not all one sided, and we get to know the enemies of the resistance too. We follow Mordake, a chain-smoking scientist who works for the Reapers to create some kind of techno-paranormal super weapon. Named Project Tindalos and shrouded in ominous, Lovecraftian mystery, it’s linked to “ghostlighting” – a phenomenon in which people are visited by members of their dead friends or family. A stressed and desperate man, Mordake’s cosmic experiment is driven by the desire to bring his wife back from the dead, rather than any actual financial reward or allegiance to the Reapers. He’s an intense character who plays with our sympathies, keeps us on our toes, and is also the canvas for a scene of memorably macabre horror.
We also meet Jarrett, a brutal and dedicated Reaper officer determined to bring her nemesis, Helen Damnation, to justice. This is partly due to the threat that Helen and her comrades pose, but Jarrett is also fearful of the repercussions from her boss if she fails. Yes, it wouldn’t be a proper ruling militia without somebody chilling at the helm, and this role is more than filled by Commander Tereus Winterborn.
“His face was smooth and pale, with a red Cupid’s-bow mouth. On another man, it would’ve been called effeminate; on a girl, beautiful. On Winterborn it was neither.”
He’ll stop at nothing for absolute power and Project Tindalos might be his chance to achieve it. I’m not going to say anything else about the man who never blinks, because you’ll have more fun meeting him and his bottled fury yourself. I’ll just leave with you this.
“Winterborn sounded amused, even flirty. He was, Mordake knew, never more dangerous.”
As a reader, we fall on the side of the resistance, but it’s not a simple matter of good versus evil. Everybody’s flawed and afraid of something, and there are moments when sympathies wander and boundaries blur, touching on the importance of perspective, guilt and obedience in any war.
As tensions between the factions escalate and the threat of Project Tindalos gathers steam, the second half of the book takes us on a breathless subterranean adventure. There are some savage and immersive battle scenes as it throws the wastelanders, rebels, Reapers and other surprise elements I won’t spoil into the mix together. We see loyalties and feelings torn, and plenty of adrenaline. In fact, one particularly taut pursuit and fight made me shudder in relief when it was over. The showdown of the novel itself certainly delivers as the whole thing explodes into an epic sf/monster horror, but it never loses its maturity and message.
I applaud Simon’s vision. It’s a menacing and bleak world, made tangible by flourishes and attention to detail. For example, regional language has evolved convincingly through the circumstances of the apocalypse, and the use of old weaponry and cobbled-together technology gives it all a pleasing cyberpunk garnish.
I enjoyed watching the characters evolve, particularly Danny, and we cheer him every step of his journey. Gevaudan Shoal brings fragility despite his immense powers, and point of view is used to great effect in dialogue. Don’t get too comfortable, however, because there are poignant deaths and some incredible sacrifices to be made.
But despite all the heartbreak and bloodshed, there is always hope in both the spirit of the resistance and in people’s capacity to care. The elements of love, humour and friendship make us believe that some things are worth fighting for. And in this book, those fights are exhilarating.
“Hell’s Ditch” is the first in a series called “The Black Road”. It stands alone as a novel, so don’t worry that it might only be a chapter without any resolution: you don’t need to invest in the series. But I bloody well am, and I think you will too. And if you should desire a cliffhanger, there’s the prologue for Book 2 at the end which is a teaser of the best kind.
I highly recommend Simon Bestwick’s energetic, hellish vision of the future. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion with tangible folk, rumbles galore, and is very easy to invest. Like Adam Nevill’s apocalyptic “Lost Girl” released a few months ago, it can be read as a gruesome thriller but also enjoyed for its thoughtful layers and complex moral core, and I can’t wait for the next instalment.