BY LAURA MAURO
Sequels are a tricky thing. No less so when you’re writing the second book in an intended trilogy. You’ve got to maintain the momentum gathered by the first book whilst simultaneously weaving in new plot threads and new characters. A good thing then that Simon Bestwick is eminently up to the task.
‘Devil’s Highway’ ups the already considerable stakes of its precursor, ‘Hell’s Ditch’ with what proves to be an absolutely relentless assault on both the rebels and Helen Damnation’s resolve. In many ways ‘Devil’s Highway’ is a high-octane action movie of a book: the ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ of genre novels, only with more dialogue. And this is not a bad thing. It’s not entirely blazing guns, blood and glory. Bestwick intersperses these frantic action scenes – reminiscent of war films in their impact – with quieter, more introspective moments. We feel the fear and the hopelessness of the cornered rebels, the vitriol of returning character Jarret, whose role is greatly expanded from ‘Hell’s Ditch’ and to great effect. War, in ‘Devil’s Highway’, is not a glamourous thing.
The real highlight of this sequel, for me, was the glimpse into main protagonist Helen’s past. This serves as both a lens on the original crisis which plunged Britain into apocalyptic despair, and on Helen herself. In the hands of another writer, Helen might have become a dull caricature of a ‘strong female character’. Here, though, her flaws and failings are put under a narrative microscope and viewed alongside her strengths and triumphs: she is a brave warrior, a survivor, a leader of men. She is also weak and selfish and dangerously impulsive. She is imperfect, and all the more interesting a character for it. The glimpses into Helen’s past tie neatly into the present, revealing secrets which impact significantly on the way I viewed more than one established character. They are not pointless, indulgent flashbacks; they are deftly woven and prove to matter very much.
In among the hail of bullets and explosions are little moments of real emotion. For the most part, they come just when needed, when the relentless pace of the action has just started to become fatiguing. The burgeoning and difficult romance between two secondary characters, the primitive terror of the nightmarish Catchmen, the fear of loss and the helplessness of being trapped in an increasingly desperate situation; the shifting viewpoints allow for an almost panoramic view of events, from the most idealistic of good guys to the most vengeful of adversaries, and a whole cast of well-drawn characters in between. And while there is hardly a George R.R Martin style slaughtering of the main cast, there is a particular moment of loss which hit me especially hard, and I think it speaks of Bestwick’s skill as a writer that he is able to make me care so much about a relatively minor character.
A potent mix of grim, dystopian sci-fi and visceral horror, combined with a vibrant imagination, lift a standard ‘Good vs Evil’ narrative and have turned it into something quite special indeed.
In the haunted desolation of post-nuclear Britain, the Catchman walks. Spawned from the nightmare of Project Tindalos, it doesn't tire, stop, or die. It exists for one purpose only: to find and kill Helen Damnation, leader of the growing revolt against the tyrannical Reapers and their Commander, Tereus Winterborn.
Meanwhile, Helen is threatened from both without and within. Her nightmares of the Black Road have returned, and the ghosts of her murdered family demand vengeance, in the form of either Winterborn's death or her own. And close behind the Catchman, a massive Reaper assault, led by Helen's nemesis, Colonel Jarrett, is nearing the rebels' base.
Killing Helen has become Jarrett's obsession: only one of them can emerge from this conflict alive.