Davy Higgins is the most wanted boy in Oxfordshire. The women of Wycombe don’t know why their leader needs him, but they’ll stop at nothing to bring him in. Father John’s men want to thwart Wycombe on principle. And Guz don’t want anyone else gaining an advantage. If only Davy knew what made him special…
The second book of The Aftermath shifts its attention to regional politics. Shelter introduced the interfering agents of Guz (military-controlled Plymouth) and ended with Guz finally flaunting its might beyond Devon and Cornwall. Haven focuses on the rival powers blocking Guz from expanding its influence across Oxfordshire: Wycombe (whose sons were involved in starting the Parish civil war) and the troops of domineering preacher Father John.
Guz holds all the cards: manpower, weaponry and an unassailable base outside the current zone of conflict. But they’re new to Oxfordshire and their presence is resented. Father John’s men are vicious but out-gunned; bullies whose power rests on intimidating farmers and villagers into submission. In Shelter, they were only a rumour; in Haven, they’re a very real threat – but one whose days feel numbered. Henry built Wycombe in direct response to a life dominated by Father John’s power. Wycombe is outnumbered (and their internal tensions make them fragile), but their emphasis on restoring and applying twentieth century technology gives them a distinct advantage. They believe Davy is the key to keeping them ahead of the game.
We see most of the action through Davy’s eyes. A 13-year-old epileptic whose Ma didn’t see the point in teaching him to read (…what? WHAT? I had Things To Say To Ma, and they were loud and ranty), Davy has lived all his life in the small community of the Hill. His horizons are narrow; his education lacking (although he’s very well-spoken); and his outlook naïve, although I’m uncertain whether his literal approach to the world is an aspect of that naïveté or if his epilepsy isn’t the only way in which he’s neuroatypical. Regardless, he could never have imagined he’d be kidnapped; or that this would begin a cycle of violent encounters and rapidly-formed (if ill-advised) attachments to those who snatch him.
None of his kidnappers seem to really know why they’re grabbing him – and neither does Davy. Everyone assumes it’s something to do with Davy’s epilepsy. Only his mechanically-minded, call-a-spade-a-spade Ma dismisses it as ‘just a medical condition, like a sprained ankle or a bladder infection’ …and as we soon hear about poor Byron’s death from a tooth going bad, these comparisons take on a newly threatening severity. Mother Patel (and hooray for the casual inclusion of people of colour in this rural post-apocalypse) says it’s a blessing that will save his life three times; his Da calls it ‘senses working overtime’. Aunt Eley says overtime was a punishment for the wicked in the olden days, but his Da says it means that Davy isn’t bound in time, which is why he has visions.
Those visions seem the most likely reason that Davy has become a person of interest beyond the Hill. His first kidnapper is convinced they will unlock the secrets of the weapons stockpiled at RAF Benson. His rescuer, Steph, tells him that he’s special, but is more worried about his age. Daniel tells Davy that he’s a ‘science and rationality man’… but even the man from Guz is tempted to believe that Davy’s visions have truth in them.
From Davy’s epilepsy to other asides, we see how much everyday knowledge of the old world has become mythology since the Sisters: overtime is as much of a mystery as when Christmas is. Guz and Wycombe maintain ties to the past as education helps them maintain their arsenals and technology; across the rest of the country, everything has been reinvented based on hearsay and superstition.
It makes for an odd juxtaposition: a medieval flavour to a world where power may still ultimately rest on access to semi-automatics, drones and tactical warheads. I quite enjoyed that tension, although the way it is expressed didn’t always work for me. Some asides feel very contemporary, making me question (perhaps unfairly) the details which have survived 200 years.
But other mentions are pure delight. The text is littered with references to The Lord of the Rings, apparently a favourite in Guz, Wycombe and on the Hill (when Davy unconsciously echoes Boromir I was astonished as Daniel). Fangirl that I am, I couldn’t help but try to make more of this than the narrative probably intended**.
While there are many moments of joy (Davy’s innocent point of view and childish perspective makes for a lighter reading experience than Shelter, although it’s a no more comforting tale), I found Haven slightly uneven. The second half isn’t as strong as the first; and it left me feeling like it was missing an act. Davy is also a tricky vehicle for the primary narrative. He can’t really grasp the enormity of what’s going on around him; I don’t mind putting two and two together for myself, but with Davy it’s almost possible to miss the points whizzing past you alongside the bullets.
Of course, I might just be dubious because I enjoyed Hat the Boat so much (not that Hat would have made a better primary narrator. Hat is the star of a handful of early chapters (…without any real resolution. What did Eva want? Is Hat okay? Seriously, I need to know he’s okay), demonstrating the sheer bloodyminded stubbornness required to survive these dangerous times and setting up context for later. The sequence in which Hat refloats and repairs his boat is glorious; and he’s such a character that Roberts’ sometimes stagey dialogue feels natural.
If Hat is colourful but peripheral, Henry’s brief turn as POV felt awkward to me. I appreciated the flashback for its insights into life under Father John’s rule, but I’m leery of flashbacks that seem inserted to avoid a pivotal character being perceived as an antagonist (even, dare I say it, as a villain). It left me wanting more of Henry’s point of view; and feeling under-served when we got Davy’s perspective of their brief interactions instead. It also left me frustrated that we never spent time with Daniel to round things out. I dearly wanted to know more about the agent from Guz: affable, capable, and ruthless (if not as dangerously unhinged as Adam).
However, I loved Roberts’s attention to fine detail, and his ability to spin a compelling yarn out of tiny pieces even when they didn’t necessarily advance the narrative (yes, I’m talking about Hat the Boat again). His prose is delightful; I particularly enjoyed the clever word play and humour, lightening the inherent bleakness of this post-apocalyptic England.
It was also awesome to see a post-apocalyptic tale focus on a community of kick-ass warrior women (complete with epic horseback swashbuckling moves), where age is no barrier to ferocity or leadership. Wycombe never feels like wish fulfilment, either. It’s fierce but flawed, and the enduring message I took from Haven was that there are no good guys – or gals – in The Aftermath. Like Guz, Wycombe has its own priorities and its own sense of justice, equally impenetrable to outsiders (let alone men, in the case of Wycombe).
So I guess I can’t really complain when my core criticism is not that Haven doesn’t deliver on its own terms (it does); but that it didn’t deliver everything it led me to want. It was more than compelling enough to leave me wanting more of The Aftermath; and curious to read more of Adam Roberts’s work.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Drawing parallels with The Lord of the Rings
** Yes, obviously I started trying to draw analogies, although the reflections – if they really exist – are in the characters, not the plot, so no need to fear spoilers! The world is a shadow of its former glory; we are firmly in the heartland of Middle-Earth for The Aftermath. Davy lives on the Hill and is thrust out into a hostile world he is in no way prepared for, so he’s a hobbit. Daniel is a wanderer on a mission: Strider, then, or a Ranger at least (although his references to having a Gollum confused me; I initially thought this was a reference to Shelter‘s maniac Morty Roberts, but Daniel isn’t Adam and seems less likely to attract Morty’s interest).
Wycombe is a closed community founded on ancient knowledge: with some reservations, that makes them Elves (although it’s tempting to call Henry Saruman… so you can call Amy Gandalf. Shocker). It’s convenient if lazy to label Father John’s men orcs, but Guz are more provocative: a power in the far West, with weapons to end all wars that they resist the temptation to use… and when they do get involved, their approach to shock and awe is far from comforting (“Just shock, really. We didn’t leave anyone behind to benefit from the awe”). So, Second Age Valar, then. But then, last time I reread The Silmarillion I was far from convinced that the Valar were the good guys, so the parallel works for me.
It’s all a lot of fun and very distracting, but as best I can tell, Roberts was just trolling fans. Still, it’s an entertaining reflection on what stories might survive the apocalypse. Of course The Lord of the Rings still has resonance; who needs the books or the films to retell the broad strokes by the fire? Cue a second entertaining thought game: what other stories would linger? Harry Potter, surely, so I look forward to those references in a future instalment (over to you, Messrs Hutchinson and Roberts). [Return to review]