In life as well as fiction there are no absolutes, there is no black and white, yes or no, and when it comes to war there isn’t even any real heroes or villains, all you have, are the differing viewpoints of those fighting the war, with each side adamant that they are righteous and the good guys. It all comes down to whose viewpoint is correct. War like life is just a shade of grey.
It’s one of the many themes that Simon Bestwick’s excellent return to novel writing explores. Hell’s Ditch is a brutal and unrelenting post-apocalyptic dystopian adventure novel that manages to entertain and enlighten in equal measures.
The United Kingdom is in ruins, in the aftermath of a nuclear war the country is in devastated. Those who survived face a hard life, food is scarce, shelter is at best barren and dirty, and their every move is being scrutinized and policed by a fascist military power and their shock Troops The Reapers. Fighting the good fight is an underground resistance movement, but they are ragged, battle-weary and deeply undermanned and under equipped.
However when a fabled warrior “returns from the dead” their hopes at victory are raised is the tide turning for the resistance or will Helen Damnation ( you have got to love that name) lead them to her namesake or will she lead them to redemption?
Hell’s Ditch is a deeply complex novel that forces the reader to face up to many truths about the horrors of war. The grimy and dirty narrative perfectly captures the horrible nature of a resistance war of attrition. Bestwick’s descriptive passages of the ruined landscape are truly evocative the sights, smells and screams of the narrative and it’s setting will imprint in your subconscious, with images of trench warfare from World War One coming to fore with a ruined no man’s land feel to the world. It is a living and breathing landscape that serves as the perfect canvas for Bestwick to paint his wonderfully complex characters onto.
One of many strong points of this novel is the way in which the lead characters have been crafted to mirror and mimic each other with Tereus Winterborn and Helen Damnation squaring up against each other. On one side, you have the neo-Nazi totalitarian regime that will stop at nothing to achieve their goal of total domination of the country’s survivors. Their methods are extreme, mass executions in response to any activity from the Resistance, the use of specialized shock troops, and like the Nazi’s of WW2 genetic experiments and research into the Occult. However, unlike their real world counterparts they have been successful.
And yet, in their eyes they are the ones on the side of right, and it is the resistance that are on the side of evil. Which you could be forgiven for thinking was true, especially in the case of Helen Damnation. She is a driven woman, her story is more personal than many of the other members of the Resistance, she is driven to the extreme which despite her good intentions, has her acting in ways that are very similar to those of the Reapers. Despite all the mass executions that occur every time she makes a move against them, she continues headlong and headstrong to her own endgame. It is this lack of purely black and white characters that makes this such a powerful novel, Bestwick forces the reader to questions their own feelings on the morality of war. The line between freedom fighter and terrorist is blurred magnificently in this novel.
Another highlight of the characterization is the fact that the only character who even comes close to being a purebred hero is the genetically modified warrior Gevaudan Shoal. He is the last of the super-soldiers known as Grendelwolves, a breed of altered humans who are infinitely stronger than normal humans, immune to pain, and capable of regenerating from almost any wound. These vicious warriors were used in the last great uprising and their legend and still lives one. In many ways, Gevauden resembles Frankenstein’s monster, yes he has committed untold atrocities, but he is a victim of his masters making, and he has succeeded in finding solace and redemption in the aftermath of the great uprising. He is a noble old soul and a character that the reader will automatically connect with and feel for.
While reading Hell's Ditch I couldn't help but be reminded of such classics as Blakes 7, Bestwick's novel shares many similar themes of flawed heroes battling tyrannical regimes. It also conjures up memories of the Dr Who classic Genesis of the Daleks, and despite the greatness of these two shows, Hell's Ditch is more than capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with these two giants of dystopian storytelling.
Throughout Hell's Ditch's narrative Bestwick wears his heart firmly on his sleeve, his views on war, fascism are presented in a heartfelt, and articulate way, without every becoming preachy, or disruptive the flow of the story with soapbox ranting. This is an intelligent novel that works as both a simple post-apocalyptic horror novel and as a deeper more engaging moral ambiguity of war. A perfect mix of action, horror, Celtic mythology and clever discourse on the human condition, Hell's Ditch will not disappoint.
Hell's Ditch is the first installment of The Black Road quadrilogy, and based on the brilliance of this novel, it is a road that I cannot wait to journey along.
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