Book review – South by Frank Owen

I’ve been writing book, graphic novel and even occasional film reviews since the year 2000. Almost 300 of these reviews are collected here, on a site that is, to be generous, looking a little dated now.

Unfortunately, that number of reviews makes it rather challenging to easily move and update, so I’m just going to start adding new reviews here.

Everyone’s a winner! I get some easy pre-written content to add on days when I’m unable to post; you get to read some of the best science fiction book reviews in the business.

This review is of South by Frank Owen, written in late 2016 for the British Science Fiction Association‘s magazine, Vector.

Corvus Books, 2016, eBook, 123pp, £5.99, ISBN 9781782398912

30257981If I’d been quicker off the mark reviewing South it would have been completed before the recent US election of Donald Trump. In that case this review would have been a bit more dismissive of South’s central pretext of a second US civil war, one leading to the destruction and depopulation of the eponymous South.

But I’m writing this review in November 2016, Donald Trump is America’s president elect, and, well, I’m rather less inclined to dismiss Frank Owen’s vision of a desolate, plague-ridden deserted South, walled off from a victorious (but here unseen) North.

What a difference a day makes, eh?

South sees the Jackson brothers, Dyce and Garrett, fleeing across a post-apocalyptic South from the vicious Callahan clan. Garrett’s dalliance with a Callahan girl led to her tragic death in childbirth and now they’re marked for death. But the Callahans aren’t the only thing that will kill them.

The South is now an empty, devastated land, still haunted by the biological warfare agents the North used to win the civil war. Spread by the winds, a stiff breeze can still bring terror, even now, 30 years later, presaging a hideous and untimely death.

Also braving the stricken land is Vida, hoping against hope to find a cure for her mother’s illness. But travelling alone is almost unheard of in this day and age, and when she encounters Dyce and Garrett they are loathe to trust each other, mutually paranoid of infection.

The three of them band together, if not in trust then at least for mutual aid and survival. They meet Felix, one of the last survivors from before the war, and the last weatherman in the South, still monitoring and recording the dreaded winds – a meeting which will have disastrous consequences for both.

Dyce, Garrett and Vida are forced to leave behind everything they know, pursuing the faintest rumour of a sanctuary out towards the coast, and embarking on a grim picaresque.

Suffice to say, things get a lot worse before they get even slightly better.

South is a well-written apocalypse from Frank Owen (actually a pseudonym for two writers, Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer), whose dreadful, emptied wasteland is conjured in surprisingly few words (that’s wastelands for you, I suppose – not much to talk about…).

The Jackson brothers, Garrett and Dyce, are hardly knights in shining armour coming to rescue Vida, but they are human, often funny, and roughly likeable, covering their own anxieties with bravado and insults.

Vida is, similarly, a strong woman doing her best to cope in this nightmarish landscape while keeping her own secrets, and hiding an agenda which doesn’t necessarily match that of her two new companions.

And then, of course, there’s the nightmarish Tye Callahan: a complete bastard with a dark past; an uncaring, unswerving and well-nigh unkillable old man, but all that remains of the rule of law in the South. He’s a great villain, but what is his relationship with the North – the unseen Jekyll to the South’s Hyde – that has all but abandoned this half of the country?

Where South fails to convince is in the biology. Writing about the aftermath of germ warfare, Owen makes a horribly convincing case for the ongoing obscenity of biological weapons of mass destruction. But it is when South seems to want a symbol of hope or rebirth, a chance for a future, that pseudo- science is rolled out to provide this hope.

Perhaps is what we should expect in a post-Trumpian, post-truth future, but in this case the shaky science seems to work even amongst the reality-based community, depleted though their numbers may be.

However, if you don’t have a PhD in biology there’s quite a bit to enjoy in South in terms of tension, action and character, with enough threads left dangling for a North in the not-too-distant future.

Assuming, post-Trump, that we have one…

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