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Wastelanders #1
by K. S. Merbeth
Orbit, $9.99, 376pp
Published: July 2016

I met Kristyn Merbeth at TusCon last year and, while I couldn't afford to buy her books then and there, I ordered them online later. 'Bite' is the first (of three) of them that I've read and, I believe, the first that she wrote. It was originally published as a mass market paperback by Orbit in 2016 but it's available now as half of a doorstop of a duology with 'Raid', collectively dubbed 'The Wastelanders'.

As that might suggest, we're in an apocalyptic future, one that will feel notably familiar to anyone in the wastelander community (there are a lot of them here in state too) or to those who enjoy movies like 'Mad Max' or games like 'Borderlands'. What's important is that, while it does embrace many of their tropes, 'Bite' takes a very different approach to the genre that I haven't quite seen before.

The first key thing to note is that time and place is consistently vague. We know that there was a civilisation and that it's fallen, but we're not once told that it's ours or, even if it is, where we happen to be or how far we got when this starts out. Some characters were born before the nuclear war that wiped everything out, so it's recent, if not too recent. Our primary character is sixteen and she was born after. The technology available isn't beyond what we have today.

We never set foot in a city and we can only presume that they're all now in ruins. Instead, we're way out in the desert, where the radiation has done a different job to usual. It sends people insane and eventually kills them, but it doesn't turn them into mutants with melted skin and extra limbs. Maybe its most abiding impact is to massively increase the infant death rate, so it isn't a vastly populated desert and it won't become one any time soon.

Society has adapted pretty quickly, though, it seems. There are a bunch of small communities, populated by "townies" who stay where they are and attempt to carry on regardless in their new world. There are "traders" who travel around and barter for goods. There are "raiders", who simply prey on everyone else. And then there are "sharks", who murder people to sell their flesh as meat. Oh yeah, out here in the wastes, cannibalism has made quite the comeback for anyone who runs out of cans of beans.

And, in the most overt departure from standard post-apocalyptic tropes, a group of sharks make up our lead cast. Surely the biggest success Merbeth finds in this novel is to take people who would be usually seen as the bad guys, the outright villains of any other story and make them, if not entirely sympathetic, at least human beings with depth and history. None of them grew up wanting to be a shark or became one overnight. There are stories here and we gradually hear them.

Another departure from the norm is to make this central band of sharks, well, a little stupid. Their leader is Wolf, who makes a lot of plans, none of which are well thought out or likely to succeed without a dose of blind luck. He's a big dreadlocked guy who would look right at home at a wasteland event, but for all his perceived callousness, he does have a heart and he's quickly a surrogate father for Kid. He's not a lovable rogue, as that cliché goes, but he's a rogue and he can be just a little lovable too.

Dolly is the matriarch of the group and she's an efficient killer, way up on any tough girl chart, and she has the expected coloured hair. She also has a serious set of issues, inherited from a former job, and they've led her to be highly socially awkward. There's also a huge guy called Tank, who's sweet, even if he smells and likes to bash people's heads in; and Pretty Boy, who's as good looking as his name suggests but is also a rank coward, ever ready to leave his colleagues in the lurch to hightail it out of anywhere fast.

And into this merry band of misfits comes Kid, because nobody uses their real name after the apocalypse, and she's far from the traditional heroine. For a start, she's only sixteen and very naïve, having grown up in a shelter with only her dad for company. She can't read, she can't shoot and she's very good at making stupid mistakes. At one point, she's given a grenade to throw so she does exactly that, not taking out the pin first. She also trusts far too easily for a world full of people willing to take whatever they can, but that humanises her and she soon becomes the humanising factor for this whole group.

As is befitting for Wolf's lack of coherent leadership, they don't set their own path so much as follow whatever path they can see at any particular time. For characters who firmly believe they're the masters of their own destinies, they're buffeted on the radioactive wind of fate with abandon and they have a knack of finding trouble wherever that wind takes them. They're also good at being the wildcards who will shake up whatever that trouble might be, likely making it worse in the process.

If Kid humanises them, their ineptitude, which sometimes borders on the slapstick, renders them a little endearing. There's one crucial point where they're on the run and so need to adopt fake personae to get safely into a community. They're all on board with the idea and they dress up a bit, but they're in by the time they realise that not one of them actually picked a new name and now they need to pretend on the fly. The humour here is as black as you might expect, but it's sometimes laugh out loud funny.

I liked this a lot. It works as a ripping yarn, a B movie wasteland with guns and trucks in (over)abundance; suitably wild raiders outshining the bland townies; and only a couple of plot conveniences, none of which grate much. It works better as a character study, an attempt to explore the old maxim that every villain is a hero in their own story, so turning the genre on its head. And it works as simply a piece of writing, with mature writing that's neatly disguised as an action movie.

My most common responses to this novel were to keep on turning pages, because its telling in the present tense adds serious urgency to the story, and to grin a lot at whatever wildly unrecommended antics Wolf and his crew have got up to now. There were points, however, where I also put the book down for a moment to admire a paragraph or a turn of phrase.

The first one was when Dolly returns Kid's beanie after an incident. Kid's response is to rush up to her and hug her, which takes the social awkward Dolly very much aback, but she recovers her mental balance by shooting a bad guy in the face. The juxtaposition of such wildly different emotions is handled perfectly. Another example follows a downpoint in interpersonal relationships within Wolf's crew. Kid explains her reaction. "I stare at my feet. The silence feels thick, and I'm struck by the impression that all of them are strangers again."

For a post-apocalyptic novel that really doesn't care about its apocalypse, only the characters who survive it, this is a heck of a lot of throwaway fun but it's elevated by its experimental convention-flouting and by touching characterisation. I look forward to 'Raid', which I believe is set in the same wasteland but with a focus on different characters, leaving our new shark friends for what I'm sure is a memorable cameo. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by K.S. Merbeth click here

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