Book cover: Shelter - Dave Hutchinson (a man walks towards a cottage against a lurid red-yellow sky)When the Sisters hit the Earth, they ended modern civilisation in minutes. Tidal waves wiped out coastal cities. The Long Autumn culled millions as oceans rose, crops failed and medicines ran out. 100 years later, opposing forces are trying to assert control over Britain’s scattered survivors. Welcome to the Aftermath.

I love a good (post-)apocalypse novel, and I love Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence – so combining a favoured author with a favoured subgenre was the perfect way for Rebellion Publishing to catch this reader’s interest. Hutchinson is a pro at character-driven storytelling; unafraid of keeping personal stories in the foreground while major events happen around them. He’s also happy to show not tell; Shelter, like Europe in Autumn focuses on what a character says and does and lets you draw your own conclusions about what they meant by it – and what sort of person they really are.

The result is Day of the Triffids meets post-apocalyptic spy thriller, as covert agent Adam is sent by the military rulers of powerful Guz (Plymouth) to investigate the disappearance of another agent in Kent. Adam’s handlers are relentless. They have faith in his abilities, but less faith in his judgement; and no interest in whether he needs a few extra days at home to sleep and sort out his fractious relationship with his cat.

And maybe – just maybe – they aren’t wrong. Adam does identify closely with the communities he visits. It’s not that his sympathies are misplaced: Adam just wants better for people – better food, better living standards, better forms of government. Peace, not war. But he’s an idealist with a very specific skill set, and idealism is hard to control. Guz don’t need an Adam-shaped problem with time to burn at home. After all, Adam is an extremely capable, post-apocalyptic James Bond – no gadgets, no time for sex – adept at blending in, breaking in, and – as it turns out – blowing shit up. And he’s not afraid to take matters into his own hands.

England has become a patchwork of fiefdoms held together by strong personalities and/or brute force. In Margate, Adam finds a socioeconomic arrangement that Triffid‘s Torrence would be proud of. Labourers are tempted in with fresh food and the promise of work, and kept in line by gun-bearing enforcers who work for an amoral dictator. The few benefit from the work of the many; dissenters and deserters are hunted down and hung (if they’re lucky). But everybody eats, although only the few eat well. It’s ruthless, but it keeps the High Weald at bay.

Further west, the uneasy peace of the Parish – a rural district of independent farmers in Berkshire – has held for decades. Some farms are bigger and more influential than others, offering safe haven to those who work there. The wealth isn’t spread evenly here, either, but a family can make a good living off their own land even if they live on a small compound rather than a walled estate. But fires are burning to the north across the drowned lands of Oxfordshire, signs of a new power rising in the Cotswolds.

The fires worry Max Taylor enough to make a trip north to the Chilterns to ask well-connected and better-armed Betty Coghlan for advice, but the sand is running out for the Parish. When he’s attacked on his way home by a stupid boy and his gung-ho friends, it kicks off a neighbourhood blood feud. The Parish war is horrific: bitter and personal, fuelled by teenage aggression and deeply-engrained mistrust. In a matter of days, the small community rips itself apart.

The terrible thing about this whole storyline is your awareness of its small-minded, inwardly-focused idiocy: Max went visiting precisely because he was worried about Cotswold marauders. Meanwhile, Adam’s mission makes it clear that better organised (not to mention better armed and more ruthless) forces are massing to the east. But the Aftermath is a world that has narrowed. There’s no easy way to travel long distance; even trade is mostly local. The farmers of the Parish, cut off by long-since risen water, make one trip to the towns of Oxfordshire in their lifetime – if they’re intrepid enough. London is a faded memory and Kent another country; Europe may as well be a myth.

Everything in the Aftermath is up close and personal – because each person’s circle is so small. Every death is a hammer blow. No trespass is forgivable. That makes what could be seen as relatively low stakes feel epic, and gives Shelter an intensity that belies how understated it is. Although we glimpse many characters obliquely (taking a step back, some are paper-thin and angular), they have a full-blooded depth crafted from raw emotion and perfectly-pitched dialogue.

I believed in them without thinking twice. I was so angry at Patrick; so afraid for Max; so frustrated with Rose; so hopeful for Nell. I wanted to think the whole thing could blow over if Max could only recover in time to have a sensible conversation with Harry Lyall – or if Nell could push Patrick aside. The Parish was built on relationships; the war shows just how tenuous these connections are, how isolated each individual family. But I couldn’t really believe in a happy ending; Shelter is too damning in its assessment of human nature (and that’s before you get back to Adam, and how he responds to situations he disapproves of when he’s in the field with no oversight).

This isn’t a book to read to reaffirm your faith in humanity. Terrible decisions are made. Awful acts are committed. All the characters are doing their best to live up (down?) to T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. When I eventually realised what Adam was really capable of, I could only marvel that I was still surprised, although Hutchinson didn’t quite corrode my ethical framework to the extent that I ever felt Adam’s actions were justified. I just wondered what on earth Adam hoped to achieve – and belatedly understood exactly why the Commodore keeps him busy away from home.

Bleak but intimately human, Shelter is one of my favourite reads of the year so far. I am itching to pick up the Adam Roberts-penned sequel, Haven – if a bit terrified to find out What Adam Did Next.

*****

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.