Change or die: Children of the Different

Book cover: Children of the Different - S C FlynnTwenty years after the Madness, the Settlement has turned its back on the disastrous ways of the City People, embracing self-sufficiency and fending off attacks by Ferals. But the children of this new age are different, manifesting new powers as they hit puberty. What will the Change bring for tight-knit twins Arika and Narrah?

Children of the Different is S C Flynn’s debut novel, a post-apocalyptic coming of age novel and first in a series. It’s easily the most professional piece of self-publishing I’ve seen; this is an author who wants to be taken seriously and who believes strongly in his work.

With good reason – Flynn has constructed an intriguing world, working with familiar ideas but still managing to make it feel fresh. Part of this charm lies in his excellent evocation of the West Australian setting: a regular visitor myself, it’s clear he knows and loves this country and I do like a bit of haunting familiarity. His vision of it is empty of people, Perth deserted and decaying; the countryside reverting to bush in between the small communities who cling on in the face of hardship and Feral attacks.

The other main attraction here it the interweaving of post-apocalyptic factions jockeying for survival (and possible ‘cures’ for the lingering consequences of the Madness) with the unusual, fantastical abilities the younger generation gain as they mature. Nobody born after the Madness escapes the Change, and each child’s experience of it – and power won from it – is unique. If they survive. Twins Arika and Narrah are hovering on the edge of it as the novel starts, having lost one friend (who turned Feral) and with another become a remote prophetess, mute except for when making one of her infallible pronouncements.

It took me some time to pin down the Madness as a sort of zombie apocalypse (in the style of 28 Days Later rather than The Walking Dead), but ultimately it is mostly noises off. Children of the Different is much more interested in its present than in the long-past horrors of the engineered plague that killed or enraged most of the population. The flashback to the event is brief, vivid and (added soupcon of personal horror) takes place on my out-laws’ local beach (I’ll never walk it the same way again).

However, the main narrative follows Arika and Narrah as each undergoes the Change, severing the unusual telepathic link they’ve shared since birth. The Changeland is a dream world drawn from the memories of those within it; at its heart, the twins encounter a vicious antagonist – the Anteater – determined to consume all those who enter. Those who are eaten awake Feral.

These sequences are tense and dark, although their potential impact was lessened for me by the simple prose: this is a story told plainly and directly (I’d peg it as middle grade in reading age). I found this hindered my engagement considerably throughout. That said, Narrah’s Change is one of the most powerful sequences in the novel as he witnesses the Madness and flees into the desert to wander amongst the termite mounds and then in an endless graveyard. It’s haunting stuff.

The twins are separated soon after Arika’s Change when Narrah is kidnapped by the City People, setting the stage for twin quests: Arika’s to escape the watchful eyes of the Settlement and rescue her brother; and Narrah’s to confront the unexpected truths of the City People in Perth and beyond.

As the plot progresses, it deliberately unpicks early world-building, providing other perspectives on what has happened to date. As an adult reader, I’d assumed from the start that the Settlement’s view of the world might be unreliable; as other factions entered the narrative the real question was who could be trusted. This is a reversal that I delight in (and the scene in which the Scientist left a copy of I Am Legend in Narrah’s room as an Easter Egg for those who know their classics was sheer delight).

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the climax quite lived up to the intriguing world-building that led up to it: at the risk of giving away too many spoilers(!), the finale involves a military base staffed by soldiers still operating on orders 20 years past their sell-by date, and an enemy who keeps coming back from the dead. Where the apocalypse and the Ferals felt like fresh takes on old ideas, in this last act the tropes felt more traditionally applied.

It wasn’t my only quibble. Arika never convinced me that she had cause to distrust Toura no matter how many times she asked herself if she could rely on her lifelong friend. The groundwork hadn’t been properly laid that the Change could turn a loved one into a Feral. Had Warrigal been introduced during the original assault on the Settlement (or when the City People paused on the road), Arika’s paranoia might have seemed more reasonable.

Similarly, I was surprised (and, old grouch that I am, slightly disappointed) by the final act flare of romance. The narrative had completely convinced me of the fierce friendship and loyalty between the group, which were satisfying and sufficient as a foundation for the risks to follow. I felt I was told (repeatedly, but without conviction) rather than persuaded that deeper feelings were in play; the bond between Arika and Narrah completely overshadowed any feelings they supposedly had for others.

Ultimately, these remain minor objections. I enjoyed the world-building and I am intrigued by S C Flynn’s vision for the future. I think this novel would work well for a younger reader less familiar with the tropes, and I remain curious about what the future holds for these characters.