reading, Reviews

Review: Displaced

Disclosure: I was provided with a copy of Displaced ahead of release by the author, Dan Hook, for review purposes.

Post-apocalyptic books, from my own experience, live or die on the strength of the imagery and world-building, but also on the strength of the characters that populate that world and the plot that befalls them. In Displaced, all of this happens with some aplomb.

Displaced is an assiduously-written adventure, with crisp, tight prose that really doesn’t impose itself upon the reader, instead laying the foundations for the characters we make acquaintances of to introduce the world and the story. That’s a great positive for me as unobtrusive, but not inelegant prose is a challenge to get right. Displaced succeeds.

We meet three main characters who have, at first glance, very different starting points: Zara, a young girl from Carbon City, one of the principle settlements in the world Dan has built, is working where she shouldn’t at Russet Dam. Quickly we are alluded to the fact that what Zara, and her accomplice, Trent are doing, isn’t quite in the spirit of helping the community they come from. Whatever clandestine task Zara has gotten herself wrapped up in goes awry and she finds herself on the wrong side of the tracks, looking for a way home.

Then we meet Shelby, whose idyllic agrarian lifestyle – living off the land on the grassy outskirts of Lornstern, portrayed as a veritable Eden – is predictably disrupted by the arrival of hostiles. These hostiles quickly disrupt Shelby’s idyllic agrarian lifestyle and threaten to turn his world inside out.

Finally, we meet Luther, head of security in Carbon City, tasked with investigating the events Zara found herself wrapped up in, and balancing the political ramifications both at home and outside with methods that raise eyebrows to say the least.

These are three distinct and diverse characters, and the narrative switches between. One of the successes of the approach Dan takes with this triumvirate of protagonists is that the reader finds themselves wanting to know what happens in each thread of the story, eager to see them coalesce together. The strands begin as separate entities but are clearly signposted as the book develops as being on a collision course, and this drives the story forward.

Dan does a great job in piecing together the world that this book takes place in – unencumbered by the geography of the present world we, the reader, are aware of, he creates a totally new world reshaped by events several centuries before. This allows total creative ability to create geography, lore and politics between the various zones.

I thought the choice to focus the characters around Carbon City was an interesting and successful one as Carbon City, despite its auspicious name, is not the crowning glory or de-facto superpower of the region: indeed, there are multiple external factors that put the settlement on the back foot and this really raises the stakes: Carbon City is in a delicate peace with the militarily-superior Eastern Legion of Trittle and trying to negotiate with Sol to gain access to their strategically-important oil resources. There are great hints that Carbon City can talk the talk more than perhaps it can walk the walk, so this keeping up of appearances adds an urgency to at least one of the main character threads.

The events of the story fall broadly into a theme of Carbon City trying to remain relevant and competitive; Zara’s guerrilla activities threaten the fragile peace with Trittle and threaten derailing the oil negotiations. On the other hand, it becomes readily apparent that Shelby is forced to participate in a clandestine, sneaky evening of the score for Carbon City against these changing odds.

If I had to pick which character’s story intrigued me the most, I would say the storyline of Luther seemed the most developed of the three: his character has the most development – we see him constantly battling against what could very well be violent and unpredictable mood swings to maintain the façade of sophistication in his interactions. Plus, I wasn’t sure for the majority of the book whether his character was good or bad – his intentions seem to be in the interest of Carbon City at the beginning but slowly more and more it seems like the opportunity to do right by the City is also an opportunity for personal political gain. Ostensibly, he is conducting an investigation that threatens to harm the efforts to maintain Carbon City’s relevance in the region but his methods and the opportunities presented in this endeavour leave these noble intentions in question throughout and we end up pondering quite what Luther’s end goals happen to be.

Overall though, the narrative is plenty intriguing to draw us, the reader, into the world of Displaced. The three threads do achieve some commonality toward to conclusion of the book and we’re left on a precipice wondering what happens next. The book is astutely titled as we do see all the main characters are displaced from the positions – physical and political – we encounter them in at the offset.

That said, if I had to think of one thing this book had lacking, it was a self-contained story that stands alone. Displaced does feel like a portal to the wider adventure we’re embarking upon, and less of a stand-alone story as we don’t reach any firm conclusions on the character. It does well to plant plenty of intrigue into what will follow up in the next book but I did feel this book was calling out for a story arc its own, especially as the rest of the series is yet to come. However, this aside, crisp writing and vivid, compelling worldbuilding and action retained my interest and left me wanting more!

I’m also hoping that Shelby and Zara’s story treads get the development and depth that Luther’s appeared to have; I want to find out what happens to them and how this ties together!

But these things aside, Displaced has a ton of positives going for it. I really enjoyed Dan’s writing style and voice, it really hit the nail – paradoxically hard-to-achieve of easy to read writing. The prose is not obstructive to the plot but it doesn’t lack style.

Overall thoughts on Displaced are that the quality of the prose and the richness of the world – combined with three intriguing and engaging plot threads, especially strongly on the part of Luther’s story – offset there not being as well-developed a stand-alone story arc for the book on its own as I feel it deserves. I see this as a very well-written and lusciously-built world and I’m eager and excited to see what Dan has planned next for the series!

My rating: Highly Recommended

Find out more information on Displaced on Dan’s website: danhook.co.uk

Displaced launches on Amazon on September 1st 2020 (paperback) and September 8th 2020 (Kindle)

reading, Reviews

Review: Midnight in Chernobyl (Paperback)

In my quest to read more non-fiction; buoyed by last year’s acclaim for the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, I took a recommendation to read Midnight in Chernobyl.

I had previously attempted a non-fiction book about the Chernobyl disaster, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy – however I’d stalled on that one, and thus I found Midnight in Chernobyl a bit of a daunting proposition. History seemed to have a slightly dry, disconnected prose style that didn’t quite resonate – even now I struggle to quite put my finger on why that book hadn’t struck home.

However, Midnight proved considerably more engaging. It is a visceral, technical and compelling account not just of the disaster that took place on April 26th 1986 at 1:23:45AM but the moves that made disaster seem inevitable – missteps and mistakes that combined to create the nuclear disaster of 1986, but also the monumental, and initially misguided efforts to mitigate the disaster.

Midnight in Chernobyl, for me, succeeds because it reads much more like a story than an account. There’s a compendium of characters – including Reactor 4 itself – that all combine to make the chilling effects of the disaster what they proved to be. And the prose is chilling, intense and compelling – I found it difficult to stop reading, wanting to read on to find out what happened next.

Midnight in Chernobyl is clearly assiduously researched; but it also reaches from the late 1980s as the Soviet state begins to implode to today, with some punchy references to characters we’d come to know throughout the story reflecting back. The book is technical, which I liked, but it’s also not unapproachable. It seems to apportion the bulk of the responsibility for the accident primarily, not to the reactor operators (who made some reckless, crazy decisions) or necessarily the deficiencies of the RBMK reactor design that made it inherently dangerous, especially in the wrong hands, but on the Soviet system that pushed all these elements together.

Take for instance, ludicrous, imposed timescales and deadlines: not just to get Reactor 4 running “before the end of 1983” or to complete the botched test that caused the explosion but even to lay the first cubic feet of concrete for the whole plant. These deadlines, politically motivated for some misguided sense of prestige led to construction faults and operator errors that ultimately led to accidents.

This same system placed individuals ill-qualified but for their party affiliations in prominent positions of management, regardless of their skills – the chief engineer of the plant being a factory worker who took a correspondent’s course by mail on nuclear physics, who seemed to be in post more for his buttering-up of the local Communist Party than perhaps due to his competence; indeed, he was asleep at the time of the test. The system’s rigid expectations from its staff – reduced, essentially, to automatons to simply fulfil the Party and State’s will – led to reckless corner-cutting from construction to the fateful test itself.

But the most grievous trait laid bare is a system mired in paranoid secrecy – from whether to evacuate the nearby city of Pripyat to even understanding the true nature of the accident. But the worst example of this broken system is that the accident was completely preventable: the power excursions that came about from the design flaw in the control rods in the RBMK reactor – a fault that would make the emergency shutdown button at Chernobyl “a detonator”. Even the “official” inquiries tried to bury the truth with the reactor under tons of lead, boron, cement and lies.

The chronic mismanagement of the entire Communist system comes out as the biggest villain – not only did it lead to the disaster through a tragic series of isolated events that combined, it made the initial management of the accident ineffective, and hampered the international response in the misguided pursuit of “prestige”. Ultimately the disaster, one the Soviet economy was ill-prepared to cope with, played a major contributory role to the eventual collapse of the USSR.

I was discussing the book with the friend who recommended it, and he summed it up ina way I couldn’t put any more eloquently: “You start off feeling it’s inevitable and come out amazed it wasn’t worse.”

Indeed, Midnight in Chernobyl is not just a visceral, assiduously researched account of the disaster but a prism through which to observe a regime in chaos. It’s a gripping story that doesn’t overwhelm, and I’d highly recommend it!