Simon Bestwick

Snowbooks / 2017

ISBN: 1931081549

Bestwick kindly provides a prologue to bring readers up to date after the wait between Hell’s Ditch and Devil’s Highway. My wait was about thirty minutes; one of the perks of being a reviewer is being lucky enough to get to manuscripts long before the actual book gets to the public. Call me fortunate, because I was hungry for the next volume in The Black Road series before I finished the first one. Not only because he has created a blood-pounding view of a dim future but, also, because I have to keep an eye on him to protect characters more important to me than any Jon Snow.

ALERT! Here be some spoilers, but I am assuming for the purposes of this review that wise readers have already zoomed through Hell’s Ditch, too.

The fight against the Reapers of RCZ 7, with the rebels gaining against the monsters in The Tower, is far from over. Reaper Base Hobsdyke is nothing but rubble and a crater where a crucial project was being feverishly watched over by D. Mordake — father of the Styr and prisoner of his own obsession and his ghostlights. Dr. Mordake was being more closely watched over by Colonel Jarrett and Commander Winterborn. With Project Tindalos blown to hell Winterborn and Jarrett are ever more determined to track down and kill Helen Damnation, their own mortal enemy.

Good luck with that. On the Black Road people and things aren’t so easily disposed of and seldom stay dead, whether other people see them or not. Helen’s own ghostlights wait hungrily for her to fail, getting more unsettling each time they appear in Devil’s Highway. Frank is creepy enough, but Belinda is downright repulsive. If anything, they seem to be more ravenous; they are harbingers of doom as Helen’s visions of walking the Road and towards the city that lies beyond bring her ever closer to the source of her terror. No number of rebel victories erase the faces from her past or the Road ahead.

Holed up in a secret base, Helen, Danny, Gevaudan, and their guerrilla army of survivors of the War, tribes of the Wasteland, and bands of fighters barely more than children. Actually, in a better world they would still be enjoying the benefits of youth. In the burned out remains of Britain no one has the luxury of a childhood; it is join the fight or be ground to dust by the evil of the Reapers.

It is impossible not to identify the Reaper army with the Nazis: black leather uniforms, sociopathic leaders, branches that bring to mind the SS and Gestapo. At this time Bestwick’s prescience seems especially chilling. After all, aren’t many of us looking uneasily at our proposed leadership, fearing a similar landscape in our lifetime? Like the Reapers, some coming into power appear to share their scorched Earth policy as, well, doable

The characters slowly continue to develop and unveil their sorrows and intents. Bestwick does not take the easy route of dumping information on readers, but teasing it out, one breakdown at a time. No one has escaped the devastation unscathed, holding their guilt and their past hidden beneath the mask of battle. What we learn in Devil’s Highway piles shock onto shock of the information in revealed in Hell’s Ditch. Just when we think we have the whole story, another unforeseen fact is revealed that rocks our understanding of the past, the present, and the future. We hope there is a future — at times it seems doubtful.

What is astonishing is Bestwick’s portrayal of battle. Even with the input of actual military advisors it is frightening how well he grasps the horror  and conveys it to readers. The action moves with the speed of an artillery shell, laying to waste carefully crafted schemes and anything that stands in its way. Buildings, ‘cruisers, and walls fall before the surge of violence on both sides of the fight. And people fall. Carnage in war is not secret, but Bestwick’s evocation of it is brutal, gory, and heartbreaking. Just caring about a character, much like a combatant, is no protection against enemies. Some of my favourites fell in the skirmishes and before what appears to be an unstoppable, immortal army.

Because the appalling, terrifying plots of the Reapers and Jennywrens of Hell’s Ditch may have been shattered, but pieces have a way of being knitted back together with even more evil results. Danny’s leadership and Helen’s Katnisslike ability to rally others to a cause (her cause?) may not be enough to beat back the forces of depravity this time; determination can only carry an army so far. Having right on your side is never enough when both sides try to claim the high ground and Bestwick understands this better than most; he makes it hideously clear with each loss — Reaper, rebel, and cowering bystander. I take that back; the Reaper forces see no one as collateral damage, just obstacles to be swept out of the way or used as leverage.

Some wonder if Helen Damnation shares some of that tunnel vision or if she will learn from history brought to life by ever-present conscience, Gevaundan. The Grendelwolf speaks verse that none around him recognise or heed, no matter its relevance or warning, forgetting that he has seen and learned more than most of them will live to experience. Most? Perhaps all.

Hell’s Ditch started the engines and Devil’s Highway pushes the needle into the red as we hold on with a death grip to race through the atrocities and unstoppable action of the second volume, white-knuckled as we are thrust into the middle of the firefights and the helpless fear for those we have come to love and will certainly lose.

Can an author push the machinery even farther towards destruction and keep readers’ nails dug into the iron for more? Maybe not every one, but trust Bestwick. The Black Road has only gotten more horrifying with each volume, but I cannot look away, nor do I want to.