Thursday 15 December 2016

Devil's Highway

Devil’s Highway is another(!) new novel from Simon Bestwick and is published by Snowbooks. It’s the sequel to last year’s Hell’s Ditch and is the second volume in the Black Road quartet of post-apocalyptic novels.
I reviewed Hell’s Ditch here ending with the statement that I looked forward to the follow up books so I was more than chuffed that I was offered an advance review copy of Devil’s Highway. I was also chuffed to see that this second book in the series contains a brief re-cap of the events of the first one – something I wish other publishers would do. Hell’s Ditch featured a huge cast of characters in multiple plotlines so it was good to be reminded of who was who and who did what… Dumbing down? Nope – the refresher acted almost like a teaser trailer, setting the new book up very nicely.
So… what happened next?
Much of the narrative of Devil’s Highway is taken up by a battle between the rebels and forces of the military dictatorship running the country. This is, in effect, a siege of the rebel stronghold, the location of which has been discovered, and is told at breakneck speed from multiple viewpoints. It’s a technique, I have to say, that’s difficult to cope with – the rapid changes in scenes, characters and viewpoints is a lot to take in and led to a wee bit of confusion from time to time…
Which, of course, shows just how effective a technique it is. Once I’d settled into the rhythm of the writing, I was put in mind of the night-time bridge bombardment sequence in Apocalypse Now, a confusing amalgam of noise and visuals in which no-one, characters in the film and viewer alike seems to have any real idea of what’s happening. Such is the impression I got with these opening scenes in Devil’s Highway, the fog of war recreated on the page to impressive effect.
All of the characters who survived Hell’s Ditch return, Helen Damnation, Thereus Winterborn, Gevaudan Shoal and all the others but there’s also the introduction of the Catchmen, part human, part robot – relentless killing machines created by the Tindalos Project. I loved the concept of the Catchmen – was put in mind of the old TV programme The Nightmare Man, particularly in the scenes involving a one-on-one combat between Helen and one of the monsters. An army of the Catchmen is the military’s secret weapon, deployed to devastating effect during the siege. The ability to reconstruct themselves even when destroyed renders them virtually indestructible…
As the battle reaches a crucial moment, Simon make the bold move to interrupt the action and begin a series of flashbacks, taking the story back to the fall of the first bombs heralding the beginning of the nuclear destruction.
A bold move, yes – but one which pays off handsomely. Here we have the origins story of not just Helen but also other key characters within the narrative. I loved these scenes, from the description of the bombs hitting to the “oh my God” moments – of which there are many - in the development of the characters. Context is everything and the whole series is, I believe, strengthened by its inclusion here. It’s a grim read, conjuring up images of the worst of mankind, and the horrors of previous conflicts with its descriptions of extermination squads and mass graves. This part of the novel is its strongest, a welcome break from the onslaught of the battle scenes and world-building of the highest order.
Who lives? Who dies? These, and many more questions will be answered within the pages of Devil’s Highway as the battle ends and the survivors make plans for the future. The book fulfils the role of the middle volume of a series admirably, progressing the narrative whilst setting things up for the final instalment. The back-stories add an extra edge to the inevitable showdowns and the introduction of a shadowy and mysterious character raises the expectation of new horrors in prospect.

I look forward immensely to how the quartet of books will conclude, can’t quite believe I’ll have to wait a year to do so…

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