The prologue of Rich Hawkins’ The Last Soldier is a harsh statement of intent about the world that his protagonists exist in. I had thought that the book’s predecessor, The Last Outpost was bleak but the opening strike of The Last Soldier hits you like an emotional sucker punch that leaves you bruised and reeling. That much is made abundantly clear within the first few pages of reading as the survivors of The Last Plague are faced with the nightmarish reality and stark choices of being a species on the brink of extinction. After reading the introduction I just sat staring at my Kindle in an attempt to process what I had read. I think a far more accurate description would probably have to be “stunned” to be honest.
This is a world that has decayed beyond the point of no return, where familiar emotions like hope, love and compassion are dangerous and death is a welcome release. Britain is a land dominated by the infected hordes hunting for flesh and where the uninfected survivors are reduced to fighting over the scraps of the world like rats in a trap. Set a year or so after the arrival of the plague, The Last Soldier is about an ex soldier called Morse who chaperones his young ward Florence across an increasingly nightmarish Britain in an effort to discover the solution to her illness. It would appear that Florence may or may not hold the key to unlocking the mystery of the Plague Gods and their plans. What follows is an epic and horrifying journey into the depths of the Plague’s heart of darkness.
To say that I enjoyed The Last Soldier would be a gross understatement. Over the course of three novels and a novella Rich Hawkins has crafted a beautifully bleak and despairing vision of the apocalypse. The oppressive and cold mood that he creates evokes a strong Lovecraftian sensibility of a perpetually hungry cosmos where humanity is insignificant and nothing more than meat ripe for consumption. That tone is reinforced by the wonderfully grotesque body horror creations that are Hawkins’ Infected and the barely glimpsed Plague Gods in the sky. This is a world poised on the brink of collapse where mankind has no place in the new natural order.
One of the major strengths of the Plague novels is that the epic scale of the apocalypse that has beset mankind is juxtaposed and filtered through individual experiences. Hawkins decision to restrict his narrative focus to a few characters provides a terrifyingly intimate view of living during apocalyptic times. That personal perspective is aided to no small degree by his ability to write characters that are engaging and feel like real people. It makes what they have to endure throughout the course of his books all the more traumatic and The Last Soldier is no different in this regard. In fact I would says that what happens to his main characters here is far more of a kick in the guts than its predecessors primarily due to the nature of the relationship that Morse develops with the orphaned Florence. A relationship which is pushed to its limits when Florence is kidnapped by The Order of the Pestilence leaving Morse with cold, hard choices to make.
Morse is a man who, despite everything he has seen and experienced, retained some core sense of human decency and compassion in the face of all consuming horror. Most others have not been so fortunate. The majority of people that he encounters have been irrevocably twisted and altered by their experience, devolving to baser instincts and seeking comfort in the embrace of madness, blood sacrifice and doomsday cults. His journey south is a raw and desperate trek where you get the sense that this story was only ever going to have one ending but it may offer Morse some form of redemption. When it arrives it is a deeply gratifying and fitting conclusion to the story that is both heart-wrenching and strangely comforting at the same time.
The Last Soldier is bleak but Hawkins manages to wrestle a weird kind of beauty from the overwhelming darkness, despair and horror by showing how some semblance of humanity can survive in even the harshest of conditions. He is one of the few writers whose fiction I devour in one sitting and with The Last Soldier he has written a novel that makes me think about the phrase “parting is such sweet sorrow.” Simply put, The Last Soldier is excellent.
GEORGE ILLET ANDERSON