Dead Man’s Number by Matthew S. Cox

ARC: No cover available at time of review. Cox combines the tropes of post-apocalyptic action stories with the fundamentals of human character and the realities of engineering to create a tale that will satisfy both those who love Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome and those who were constantly niggled by who was processing all the crude oil into petrol to keep that society running.

This novel is the third volume in the Roadhouse Chronicles. Travelling beyond this point risks uncovering spoilers of The Time Before.

Kevin’s lifelong dream of running his own Roadhouse proved to mean nothing compared to keeping Tris and Abby, the girl she rescued, safe. Leaving his old life behind, he withdrew to a small settlement far from raiders, Infected, and armoured courier services. However, Tris can’t shake the worry that the Enclave, who were prepared to virus bomb a city in the hope of killing her, haven’t stopped looking; and that fences and watchtowers are no defence against high-tech drones. So, when further study of the fake data packet she was tricked into carrying reveals a potentially real message hidden within, she is compelled to investigate. And Kevin can’t let her go alone.

As with the previous volumes, Cox balances the fast-paced thrills of post-apocalyptic road wars and looming paranoia of zombie outbreaks with plausible futurism: some high-tech weapons exist, but ammunition is very scarce; gangs with signature styles exist, but most raiders favour practical gear and weapons over looking dramatic; Infected can display extremes of physical ability, but are still subject to the limits of the human body. Thus, while this story is fast cars, loud guns, folk legends, and swarms of threats, it’s also plausible and possessed of depth.

This grounding in the possible allows Cox to introduce the Enclave in greater detail without damaging the image of a broken world that he’s created throughout the previous books. Although the Enclave are polished and well-equipped where everyone else is dusty and cobbled-together, it is a plausible advancement of existing science and technology, and therefore seems another aspect of the same overall world rather than the jarring addition of military space opera to a cowboy film.

Cox also continues to sprinkle moments of levity among the scenes of danger and hardship. Whether subtle jokes, wry perspectives, or slight deviations from the primary goal, these provide both a pleasing contrast with the bleakness of questing across a post-apocalyptic nation and a strong sense that the characters are people with the same fundamental drives and emotions as those in any other situation.

Kevin remains a well-written and sympathetic protagonist. The decency that slipped past his demeanour of mercenary loner in the first volume has grown beyond protecting his immediate associates from imminent threat into a desire to remove dangers that might threaten others in the future. However, with the plot of the novel turning on the woman he loves wanting to travel into danger, this altruistic drive proves as much a source of uncertainty as a source of strength; going with Tris requires leaving both the girl he has taken as a daughter and his new community without his protection.

This uncertainty over the right path is echoed in Tris. Having seen how many innocent people the Enclave is prepared to sacrifice for its goals, she can’t ignore the secret message. But, having previously been tricked into almost being a suicide bomber by someone claiming to be working against the evils of the Enclave, can she trust that this mission is for the good of humanity.

Abby, Cox’s third viewpoint character, provides a fresh and engaging perspective on the world. As with younger characters in Cox’s other works, she is childlike without being childish, mixing the stronger emotions of youth with its innocence. This mix of utter terror at threats that seem distant to the reader, such as drone strikes, combined with a naïvety toward risks immediately obvious to the reader, such as heading out alone after dark, creates an underlying sense of uncertainty over what is a real danger that enhances the paranoia of living in a small settlement threatened by bandits, zombies, and evil bunker dwellers.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel immensely. I recommend it to readers seeking post-apocalyptic science fiction that offers all the action without overwhelming daftness.

I received a free copy from the publisher with a request for a fair review.

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