By Marty Mulrooney
Defender is the debut novel – the first of a planned four-part series – of British author G X Todd, a thirty-four year-old librarian from the West Midlands. Published today in the UK (12th January 2017) by Headline, it is set in a future where the majority of the population has gone insane due to the ‘voices’ in their heads. Following an unprecedented number of suicides and murders, the survivors have scattered across an American landscape gone to ruin. As the story begins, a young girl sits on the dusty roadside of this post-apocalyptic nightmare trying to sell homemade lemonade. She needs a ride. After days without luck, she’s close to giving up. Then a man with a gun comes along on a motorcycle and the voice inside his head suggests he should stop for a drink…
Mmm, lemons, Voice commented. You like lemons.
Pilgrim rolled to a stop next to the stand, within arm’s reach of the plastic cups lined on the fold-away tabletop, and cut the engine. Each time Pilgrim’s eyes wandered from the hand-painted sign, they returned a few seconds later. Something about the yellow of the lemons stirred a memory, something deeply buried beneath all that protective dirt. He didn’t dig for it, though. There was little point in disturbing the graves.
Pilgrim (aka Boy Scout) is an enigma from the outset, filling his mouth with out-of-date beer before spitting it onto the ground. He often speaks to the voice (Voice) inside his head and, despite the occasional disagreement, the two seem to get along just fine. He claims to not like company – despite allowing a stray cat to follow him and eventually ride on his motorcycle with him – and always sleeps with his boots on. He has a pack on his back and his eyes are hidden behind dark sunglasses. He also carries a loaded gun and knows how to use it.
Lacey has lived alone since her grandmother passed away. She was taught to stay away from strangers, but being left alone in the family farmhouse is driving her stir crazy. She knows little of the outside world, or what happened to the people in it. It’s only when ‘Grammy’ is gone that she devises a plan: she must reach her sister in Vicksburg. Her naivety when it comes to the new world order is her biggest strength and her greatest weakness. At least she doesn’t hear a voice inside her head.
Pilgrim listened closely to their retreating footsteps. They went only thirteen steps and then he heard another door unlatch. The brother spoke to the room’s occupant – the girl (Lacey, Voice reminded him, although he hadn’t forgotten) – his words too low to make out. Pilgrim heard the girl’s response, though.
‘Fuck off and die!’
Pilgrim smiled. She would need to keep her nerve; the next few minutes weren’t going to be pleasant ones for her.
Of course, Pilgrim is tricked into helping Lacey reach her destination and they unsurprisingly encounter danger along the way. There have been a great many post-apocalyptic films, games and books released over the past few years, with The Walking Dead and The Last of Us being standout examples. However, it’s often difficult to put a fresh spin on things. Stephen King certainly set the bar high with The Stand in 1978. Yet Defender, despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, does manage to feel fresh.
The idea of hearing an unfamiliar voice inside your own head is both fascinating and terrifying. F X Todd takes the very real dangers of violent and suicidal thoughts, and applies them on a global scale. By viewing the world through these two carefully crafted protagonists – one with a patchy memory at best, the other with no first-hand experience of what the hell happened – Todd builds up a great deal of mystery and suspense. Details are continually drip fed, but even the characters themselves can only discuss theories and ‘what ifs’. Nobody really knows what happened.
‘It had “Defender” on the back of it,’ said Lacey.
He chanced a glance at her.
‘I saw it. I swear.’
He believed her. ‘Think you can shoot at them?’
She looked back out of the window. The jeep was about a hundred yards behind and closing. ‘I can try,’ she said.
‘Try,’ Pilgrim told her.
Defender succeeds because it focuses on two of the most important aspects of post-apocalyptic storytelling: the horrible yet inescapable fact that human beings are far scarier than any make-believe monster, and the conviction that likeable characters with believable relationships matter far more than moment to moment plot developments. The story itself is more than serviceable, with clear goals that are continually confounded by antagonists that feel utterly terrifying and real without ever descending into pantomime villainy. When the hold-your-breath action comes, it’s fast, visceral and brutal.
Some readers may feel frustrated by the lack of concrete answers and absence of closure – the book starts with a great many unanswered questions and finishes with even more. Yet the cliché is true: sometimes, it’s more about the journey than the destination. With three more books to come, there is still plenty of time for readers to become enlightened. For now, the focus is on getting to know Pilgrim and Lacey. Split into five ‘parts’, this unabashed page-turner has some of the most breathtaking cliffhangers and gasp-inducing moments this reviewer has read in a number of years. You’ll truly come to care about these characters, and fear the world they live in. Defender is a highly impressive debut that will make you seriously question your own thoughts. Already, 2017 has its first great novel.
9 OUT OF 10