Fearsome robots compound the misery of Sierra Leone’s civil war, in an over-the-top first novel from British journalist Paxton that lurches through various genres.
The robots are imaginary, but the civil war was all too real. One of the players was the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), notorious for its chopping off of hands and its high proportion of child soldiers, and one of its leaders was the self-styled General Butt Naked. (Actually, Paxton “borrows” him from Liberia.) The teenager encounters Father Jack, an alcoholic Irish scientist, in the bush, and supplies him with body parts; Jack wires these together, and adds a dash of the Ebola virus, to create homunculi, or small robots. Which brings us to Rindert, a South African mercenary escorting two members of the Japanese cult that gassed the Tokyo subway system. These virus hunters are after the Ebola but are killed by a landmine before they reach Jack’s village; Rindert, unhurt, talks to Jack and sees dollar signs. Why not sell the deadly robots on the world market to assorted warlords and drug kingpins? He has the perfect contact in England, Dr. Pleasant, another South African who committed unspeakable crimes for the apartheid government. Rindert and Pleasant set up an auction (the crux of the novel) and a cross-section of bad guys travel to Jack’s village. It’s a crazy project, but Paxton’s writing has a nervous energy that might have made us temporary believers if he had stayed focused. Unfortunately, he wanders all over the lot: cult meetings in Tokyo, harebrained missions in England and RUF shenanigans in Freetown. The author, a British journalist, can’t decide if he’s writing suspense, horror or black comedy (though few readers will find anything funny in the trashing of child soldiers). There’s even a note of whimsy: The robots need imported distilled moonlight to stay functional. This doesn’t mix well with the pervasive carnage that Paxton describes with disconcerting relish.
Superimposing your own monsters on a barbaric war doesn’t work.