I have so many signed books on my shelf by Arizona authors that I really don't want to repeat myself a lot in my monthly attempt to catch up with them all. However, I'm returning to K. S. Merbeth for three reasons. For one, it's been six months since I reviewed her debut novel, 'Bite', to which this is a sequel. For another, I thoroughly enjoyed its take on the post-apocalypse, which was at once entirely what we expect and something completely new. And third, my copy of 'Raid' is the second half of a doorstep of a volume, following 'Bite' in a behemoth called 'The Wastelanders'. Being able to move this off of my headboard means I can put at least three or four other books there instead.
When I said that this is a sequel, I was technically telling the truth, but misleading just a little. This is not a direct sequel, a continuation of the misadventures of Wolf and his crew of sharks. This is set in the same world, with a new leading lady, a new set of characters and a new story that eventually leads us to the time and place where 'Bite' ends, so we can revisit with Wolf and his mob and continue both stories forward.
Some things are very much the same. This is once more told in the first person and present tense, the combination appropriate for the post-apocalypse, as it keeps everything urgent and immediate. The initial setting is the eastern wastes, rather than the western wastes, but the same sort of people are there to struggle to survive in the same sort of ways. Over in the east, the raider chief is a legend of a man, Jedediah Johnson, but he dominates in the same way that the Saint did in the west.
Another similarity is that I think it's safe to say that the bad guys are the heroes again, but not to the same degree. Our lead is Clementine, who's a bounty hunter who kind of likes to kill people. That's not a traditional hero, even after the end of the world, but there are reasons why she does what she does and they're fair enough. Also, she has rules, somewhat like Dexter's rules and given to her early on in her life, again like Dexter. She has a mission and it isn't particularly far into the book when we hear it said. "I need people to know it was me. I need to be the woman who freed the eastern wastes."
Of course, the way she'll do that is to take down Jedediah Johnson, the man who burned her town and killed her family, and she's handed him on a platter. Alex the Collector has an informant, who says that there's an escape tunnel leading right into Johnson's room in his mansion in Wormwood. Clementine has her doubts, but in a fantastic segue, we go from one chapter ending with her not believing it at all to a new one beginning, "The tunnel is real." Sure enough, in she goes and out she comes again with a rather surprised and surprisingly young prisoner.
The problem is that Alex the Collector won't take him. He's too big a name with too scary a reputation and too tough a crew and, if he pays his bounty, Johnson's men will destroy him utterly in revenge. So the only thing for it is for Clementine to take the legendary Jedediah Johnson on a road trip over the desert to the western wastes and deliver him to the Saint, who's broadcasting over the radio that he's cleaning up the wastelands and paying bounties for this sort of bad guy.
I'd say that the real story starts here, as Clementine hits the road in Alex's car with Johnson bound on the floorboards, headed west. Then again, that's up for debate. Readers of 'Bite' know what happens to Saint and, sure enough, Clementine arrives at Shark's tower just in time to see it empty of raiders, now that the great man has been toppled. So much for that plan. So maybe the real story begins then. Or maybe... no, I'll shut up now.
Let's just say that rather a lot happens on the way to Saint's tower and quite a lot more happens after it and all of it helps build this story. I mentioned the similarities to 'Bite' above, but there are notable differences too. Most obviously, Clementine is a kick-ass lead. I believe I like Kid a little more, but it's fair to say that the story of 'Bite' happened around her. She's a mouse learning not to be as much of a mouse. If there's a word that describes Clementine worse than "mouse", I'm not sure it would be. She takes the story by the balls and head-butts it in the teeth. She's the architect of her own destiny and I think her story arc is the opposite to Kid's. Kid is a soft girl who has to learn how to be tough. In many ways, Clementine is a tough girl who has to learn how to be soft. At least, sometimes.
I'll also mention Cat and Bird, because they're a perfect example of something that could have been derivative but isn't derivative. They're another couple of bounty hunters who know Clementine well and bump into her on the road, but they have a repetition thing going, where Cat will say something and Bird, quite obviously a damaged human being, will echo it. I immediately think the pair of rogue plumbers in 'Brazil' but it's common enough a trope that I saw it again last night in the form of a pair of old sisters in an episode of 'The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes'. However, as always, Merbeth adds a twist, in this instance Bird being afraid of seeing her own skin. That's new and very cool.
What I won't mention is pretty much everything else because it would be very easy to spoil this book and I don't want to do that. If you've read 'Bite', you'll be expecting two things once the direction of 'Raid' is set: that Clementine isn't going to get her bounty from Saint because Saint's not going to be alive when or if she gets to him and that Wolf and his crew are going to show up for at least a cameo. I'll happily tell you that you're right on both of those fronts, but I won't tell you anything else. I think you deserve to experience these twists and turns on your own, because they're handled adroitly, not least because there are only really two primary characters in this entire book.
And that's it for the Wastelanders, it seems, at least as far as novels go. There is a short story called 'Pretty Vicious' that came out in between these two books, which explores the back story of Dolly, the socially awkward matriarch of Wolf's crew. I haven't read it, but I should, even though I know it's likely to be the last thing I'll be able to read from this post-apocalyptic world. Merbeth has moved on and up to a space opera series, 'Nova Vita Protocol' published as by Kristyn Merbeth and beginning with the 2019 novel 'Fortuna'. I have the first two and the third is due this year and I'm really looking forward to seeing how her style works in a very different genre. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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