One of the things that I found most fascinating about Nick Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone Away World, was how there was a lack of a villain. I mean, yes, there was a climactic martial arts duel to the death with an evil kung fu master in a hidden fortress, and that guy was in the middle of conducting an evil and dastardly plot, and he was certainly an antagonist. But the evil guy had not caused the apocalypse, that was actually done by the protagonist, and even that wasn’t his fault because it was orders and because someone else would have done it if he hadn’t. The antagonist was trying to keep the world running in some semblance of order, and while he had of course gone about it in an unethical and immoral way, it was still an understandable plan. Defeating the antagonist didn’t actually solve much besides ending his immediate threat, and (at least in my opinion) led to an ambiguous, albeit hopeful, ending.
This theme is somewhat attenuated in Angelmaker, Harkaway’s second novel, which does feature a straight-up evil psychopath as its nemesis, whose evil permeates everything and whose defeat brings closure. However, even that dealt with some coordination problems. And here, in Harkaway’s third novel, the ultimate villain here is Moloch, which is to say that it’s everybody, and nobody. With his third book, Harkaway has really hit his stride. I was a little worried after the manic intensity of The Gone Away World that he was a one-book wonder, possibly never to equal it again, but I guess I shouldn’t have. Because he is the real deal.
The most important fact about this book is that Lester Ferris loves the boy. This is what sets it apart from many books with similar themes. Yes, Tigerman is the story of a mostly ordinary man who becomes a costumed superhero, and this has been done many times, with many variations. In this one, however, Ferris does it because of love.
I suppose a few words on the setting are in order. This is something of a pre-apocalypse novel. It takes place on the fictional island of Mancreu, a former British colonial possession and currently slated for demolition, perhaps by nuclear weapons or possibly fuel-air bombs, it is somewhat unclear. You see, Mancreu made money for years by allowing a chemical factory to operate, which dumped its waste into the island’s volcano. But as it happens, these wastes caused unpredictable mutations to the bacteria that lived in that hellish caldera, and now they are unpredictably belching back up fumes unknown to science, with unpredictable and occasionally dangerous results. As a result, the nations of the world have decided that Mancreu has to go, although it’s somewhat ambiguous if this will actually solve the problem, or even that there is in fact a problem. Nonetheless it makes everyone feel better to be doing something about the situation, so that’s what they’re going to do.
The exact date of the demolition hasn’t been decided upon, but the better connected and well heeled residents of the island have started to Leave (the capital indicating that they’re gone for good, as opposed to just knocking off back to their own house at the end of the day). The poorer citizens are still hanging around. The assembled nations of the world aren’t going to kill all the ones that can’t afford to go, but it’s also clear that no one’s lining up to take them, either. There’s a good chance that the final evacuation of those who couldn’t manage to leave on their own will be to some sort of refugee camp, for who knows how long.
And absolutely none of this is Lester’s problem, he is just a sergeant nearing retirement from the service. He’s been assigned to Mancreu as a British representative and also its police service, just to show the colors, and is not expected to actually do anything besides file the occasional report and investigate the odd petty crime. Like how someone stole some fish off the docks. And someone’s been stealing small dogs.
One thing that Lester isn’t paid to look into is the odd major crime, for instance how the assorted intelligence services, criminal underworlds and major corporations of the world are using Mancreu’s current no-man’s-land status to set up a fleet of black and grey market ships out in the harbor to conduct . . . business. As long as they keep it out there it’s not Lester’s problem, or Mancreu’s problem, or as far as anyone at all is concerned, anyone’s problem. As a result the Fleet is mostly invisible, but always a presence.
In the meantime, Lester engages in the odd amateur boxing match and considers adopting the boy, a pre-teen who speaks almost entirely in leet and has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and tropes. It’s all gone about in a very British way; Lester doesn’t want to suggest that he adopt the boy if he already has a family, and doesn’t want to put him off by asking, so they spend time together and Lester tries to figure out what the boy’s deal is. He calls himself Robin, but that’s not his name, but of course Lester doesn’t believe that, and isn’t meant to.
Now this being a Nick Harkaway novel, before you know it one of Lester’s friends is gunned down in his bar by some desperadoes connected to the Fleet, and the boy has convinced Lester that what the island needs is a superhero, and then there are some riots, the accidental uncovering of a major heroin smuggling operation through the island and viral reveal of same through YouTube, and the occasional crucifixion. Lester has to navigate angry mobs, hostile bureaucrats, a crazed sigilist, and a semi-mythical gangster known as Bad Jack, all in the name of not being a hero. Because that’s not in his job description – really, his bosses are going to be upset about it if they find out.
This book doesn’t really have the insane, maniac joy of The Gone Away World, but it’s got a heart and it’s got everything else where it counts. It’s actually sort of a downer in spots, enough so that I had to stop reading it a couple of times to catch up with my feels. But in the end you’ve got to pick up and soldier on, as Lester finds and as the world teaches. It may not be possible to defeat Moloch, but it’s also possible to deny him by refusing to make the sacrifice, and taking the consequences.