Combining a complex yet immediately recognisable post-apocalyptic America and fast-paced combat with a strong focus on nuances of character, Cox creates a dystopian road trip that is neither a string of explosions nor a walking meditation.
Note: Cox’s short story of the same name form the first several chapters of this novel.
After the zombie plague drove people from the cities of North America, society collapsed. Now, the only law is that no one – no matter how despicable – violates the sanctuary offered by a Roadhouse. For years, Kevin has transported packages between Roadhouses and saved as much of his pay as he can. Finally, he’s only a few hundred coins short of buying a Roadhouse of his own. And that final job just staggered through the door.
Cox’s dystopia is an immediately engaging one. Armed and armoured cars race across the deserts of a dark future, powered as much by testosterone and aspirations as more mundane fuels. Yet those who don’t live to drive are not merely ambulatory plot triggers, existing merely to be raided by bandits with massive hair or betray the hero; there are real – if equally cobbled together from scraps – societies alongside the scavenged vehicles. As such the immediately engaging spectacle of road war does not pale for lack of substance beneath it.
In addition to the large-scale, Cox pays attention to the details of a coherent world: rather than the implausible object-barter economies of some dystopias, money has been readopted with subtle changes to represent the lack of a nation behind it; rather than a collapse into dirtier petrol-powered vehicles, futuristic technologies exist alongside alcohol-powered engines both suggesting the remnants of an advanced civilisation and avoiding the question of how oil refineries are still pumping out vast amounts of fuel without becoming the kings of creation.
This mix of large-scale coherence and nuance is equally present in the apocalypse that created the world: instead of a single threat, Cox mixes nuclear strikes with bio-weapons. The differences between targets, spread, and long-term consequences of these weapons add a layer of complexity to both the where survivors cluster and how salvaging of the past can be performed.
Even the zombie threat is highly plausible: instead of radiation-raised dead or alien parasites, these are humans suffering neurological damage from a bio-weapon that makes them highly aggressive. Their threat comes mostly from the lack of normal human self-preservation instincts rather than needing to be killed in a specific way.
As with Cox’s other works, the true joy potentially lies in characterisation strong enough to not need this (excellent) set-dressing. Kevin is a classic dystopian hero, focused on the goal of making enough scores to retire to safety and more interested in survival than doing the decent thing. Unlike some however, he has very plausible reasons: he lost almost everything not once but twice through someone choosing decency over utter self-interest. As such, both his profit-obsession and his distrust of others seem reasonable rather than merely a trope. This firmly sympathetic immorality also makes the times he does do the right thing feel more powerful.
The supporting cast are similarly more than stereotypes: rather than gangs who become fanatical enemies or staunch allies, there are gangs who might advantage of weakness but also do deals; roadhouse owners share the mercenary character needed to accumulate a stake, but are each more than bastards (with or without a heart of gold); and even characters with only a few sentences on page are given a little tweak.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel immensely. I recommend it to readers seeking dystopian fiction that focuses on the individual’s struggle between morality and survival.
I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.