Leon, a warrior-savage in the year 2203, ritually hones his survival skills on a dying Earth, waiting for rescue by space aliens—before he learns that the truth about his society is vastly different from what he’d been taught.
Irish author Pike makes an impressive debut with a horror-tinged sci-fi tale that’s set generations after multiple disasters ravaged the Earth. Deadly solar flares were followed by acidic rain (nicknamed “Old Sally”), social chaos, and wars that involved both conventional and biological weapons. People from the collapsing civilization sent an SOS into space that begged for help from any listening extraterrestrials. And, amazingly, an answer came. Much later, in a harsh “True Path” survival compound, faithful warrior Leon practices violent rituals in obedience to the “five Messages”—the supposed responses by the aliens. They dictate that only the toughest and least sentimental humans can be saved. Leon begins his ultimate test—the ceremonial hunt for a captured human—and he finds that his prey is an exceptionally resourceful woman. She manages to elude Leon and his team, at least temporarily. Then it turns out that strangers, armed with guns, are also after her. Leon’s long-sought ritual destiny falls into shambles when he hears about different versions and interpretation of the Messages. In a landscape filled with danger, he finds himself rudderless. In the company of a single companion, he heads for a supposedly extinct city where salvation may (or may not) await them.
Pike’s work initially falls in line with other novels’ depictions of future feudalism, barbarism, and hapless wandering, such as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which the many details of a past apocalypse abide only in shadow and suggestion. The author flavors his dialogue with colorful, multilingual loanwords (such as “Doghru Yol”), often from the Russian and Turkish languages, which is apt for the vaguely European landscape; however, such linguistic flourishes add little clarity to the proceedings. Still, Pike keeps up a compelling, even relentless pace thanks in part to the midnarrative introduction of creatures called “worms”—loathsome invertebrate parasites that have the ability to turn humans into deformed, zombielike things that could have shambled right out of the horror novels of Clive Barker, James Herbert, or Shaun Hutson: “It gathers itself, lurches at me again, puckering a lipless mouth between vast, mounded cheeks. Its tongue writhes around the colourless rim where its lips ought to be.” Leon turns out to have a few tricks up his sleeve, literally, and what starts out as a straightforward quest narrative eventually encompasses creature-feature splatterpunk. However, the book’s explanations and exposition are more often implied than stated—by narrator Leon or anyone else. Leon, for his part, proves to be an intriguing mix of trained killer and deluded disciple. Readers who liked the amorphous enigmas of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy may find this novel to be a similarly tantalizing tale.
A familiar story of dystopic, post-apocalyptic anarchy that’s enlivened by superior storytelling and horrendous monsters.