By Marty Mulrooney
Survivors is the third novel in the four-part Voices series written by British author G X Todd, following Defender – “a highly impressive debut” – and Hunted – “a worthy follow-up that never takes the easy road.” Book 3 sees the welcome return of a familiar face (and the voice inside his head), as birds circle high up above and lightning rages across the sky to the sound of burning, madness and death.
The world shivered.
No, that was wrong. He was the one who shivered, and the grass and the sky and the earth shivered with him.
Following the shock return of a very much alive Pilgrim at the end of Hunted, Book 3 jumps back in time to explain how he got there. Often, such literary detours can prove frustrating and kill momentum; with Survivors, filling in the blanks and learning more about Pilgrim’s past is a constant delight.
Survivors actually begins shortly before the modern world collapsed due to the voices; 49 hours before, to be exact. Taking place in the ‘the Unit’, – a busy ward in a mental institution that immediately brings to mind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – the opening chapters are a slow burn of patients versus orderlies, with many shades of grey between them.
A clinking noise brought Jackson’s eyes back to Birdy, too. A set of leather wrist restraints dangled from his hand. Jackson frowned.
‘Oh come on, Birdy,’ Abernathy said, eyeing the cuffs as he advanced on her, and Jackson saw a flash of unease in her, even if no one else did. ‘There’s no need to get all bondage happy. I’m docile as a lamb.’
‘Katherine,’ Gibbs said, still bent over Junior, who continued to rock and snivel on the floor. ‘You bit off his ear.’
Abernathy pinned the ward manager with a dangerous look.
‘That’s not my name.’
How these new characters will figure into what has already happened in the previous books – and what will happen in Book 3 – is left deliberately unclear. When the world as we know it does end, it’s fascinating that the Unit feels like the safer – and saner – place to be, at least for a time. But nothing lasts forever…
Jumping forward in time to shortly after Defender (Book 1) ended, Survivors mostly runs concurrently with Hunted (Book 2). Pilgrim finds himself caked in mud during a thunderstorm with a severe case of amnesia. He’s in a yard near a house, with a dead woman buried nearby whose name he can somehow recall – despite his memories of what happened to her being fractured. There’s a voice in his head; he was shot and he should be dead.
When Ruby found him, Pilgrim was lying on his back, his head and upper body sheltered beneath the trees, his legs and feet vulnerable to sky and sinking moon. The two bodies he’d felled lay beside him. Their spilled blood has crystallised and stained the red frost.
What follows is a journey of self-discovery for Pilgrim and returning readers that slowly begins slotting many past plot points satisfyingly into place. It’s hard to discuss these plot points without giving away spoilers, but Pilgrim’s sole mission is to reach Lacey and help her before it’s too late. In the meantime, he must deal with a past that refuses to stay silent.
It’s highly impressive how G X Todd has sown so many seeds in the first two books that are only just starting to bloom. Countless throwaway moments now make sense, and removing some of Pilgrim’s mystique as his past is revealed – we finally learn his name, his real name – does nothing to diminish the character or his appeal.
Deep in the facility a number of small whumps sounded. Mini explosions, one after the other. He and Abernathy instinctively ducked against the wall as their repercussive detonations shivered through the corridor. More masonry dust rained down. Abernathy’s hair had turned grey with it.
It would have been easy to fill Survivors with familiar faces; instead, Todd surrounds Pilgrim with a whole new group of people that only intensifies his uphill struggle to rescue Lacey before it’s too late. Character development is excellent and everyone involved feels like they have their own desires, motivations and motives. In particular, the wisecracking, short-fused Abernathy is superbly realised.
The best part of the book comes near the end, when Pilgrim must infiltrate an underground facility where unspeakable experiments are being conducted. After so much time spent outdoors, these restrictive passages are claustrophobic, tense, excruciating. It’s an old cliché, but it’s undoubtedly true: the scariest monsters in the world are our fellow men and women, especially when the rulebook has been torn up.
A hook had embedded in the muscle of his heart and it was reeling him in, dragging him to the centre of that cornfield where Lacey waited. He wanted to trample into the vegetation and barrel blindly towards her, but he had to be cautious. A hundred things could go wrong if he were to-
‘I’ve been here for two whole decades!’
This series has been positively compared to Stephen King’s The Stand, with good reason. G X Todd manages to juggle a large cast of characters while still making each one feel like a real person, and her world-gone-to-shit-building is second to none. Furthermore, no matter how much the story twists and turns, all roads lead home.
Nowadays, for many people, reading a book is starting to take second place to Netflix. The Voices series makes a strong case for the power of modern fiction, and Survivors might be G X Todd’s best book yet. In a genre done to death, it’s a breath of fresh air. Listen to the voice in your head; Pilgrim’s post-apocalyptic journey is one well worth taking.
9 OUT OF 10