Lacey has a lemonade stand at the end of the world. It seems the polite thing to do. After all, the few people left alive after the Voices woke up tend to like to travel and traveling is thirsty work.
So, Lacey has the stand. Lacey has a plan. And then, Lacey meets Pilgrim.
GX Todd’s debut novel sits dead center in one of my two favorite sub genres; stories about what happens after the world ends. It does everything right from the get go, making it clear that the world has already ended but obfuscating much of the truth of why from us for consistently smart reasons. The most common one is simply this; these characters haven’t read the book they’re in. They don’t know the whole truth because no one ever knows the whole truth. Instead, they do what we would; try and stitch things together from what we hear and what others infer. That ignorance is never weakness and with Lacey in particular Todd makes sure we know that from the start.
Some of the book’s most emotionally affecting sequences follows Lacey’s relationship with her grandma, and the quiet bravery of the older woman. We meet her only in flashbacks, protecting Lacey as best she can, every way she can. Grandma casts a long shadow over the book and the war she fights on multiple fronts gives Lacey the chance to become who she needs to be. Innocent, certainly but never adrift and never out of control. Lacey has a plan, Lacey has resources and Lacey is going to use them to get where she needs to be. If you were looking for the sort of switched on, pragmatic heroine this sort of fiction desperately needs? Trust me, you’ve found her.
And she’s in good company too. Pilgrim, her sole customer at the Stand, seems to be far more at home in the remains of society than Lacey, at least at first. But as the novel goes on Todd applies the same lightness of touch and precision of character to show us just who Pilgrim is without ever saying it out loud. He’s as much a victim of the world as Lacey but where she’s brand new, Pilgrim has had time to bandage his wounds. Better still, he’s had time to put his back to them. There are hints of Pilgrim’s backstory which may be picked up in later books but, honesty, if they aren’t then this is all you need. Especially as the growing bond between Lacey and Pilgrim is genuinely sweet without ever seeming forced.
These two are the core of the novel and orbiting around them are a constellation of ideas and characters. The biggest of these are the Voices, sentient inner dialogues that woke up en masse and caused the worldwide havoc Lacey emerges into. Voice, Pilgrim’s own personal inner angel, is a major player in the novel and one who has a personality that’s both unique and crosses over with Pilgrim himself. Todd, again, gives us hints as to what the Voices are but leaves us to make our own minds up. The consequences of their actions and existence are far more directly explored, especially the terrifying Flitting Man. A boogeyman who burns towns after he’s taken everyone with a Voice away, he casts a Mothman-like shadow whose ruthless determination is in stark contrast to Grandma’s quiet, humane courage. Doc and Dumont, the leaders of the gang who torment Lacey and Pilgrim, are the closest we get to to the Flitting Man and that’s still too close for comfort.
This is a novel that reads like a walk through a boneyard, the ruins of society giving way to constant, surprising moments of character and humanity. Posy, one of Dumont’s henchman is revealed to be a far more complicated and tragic figure than he first seems. Alex, a refugee they pick up along the way who suffers almost inconceivable pain at the hands of the gang, is the toughest person in the novel and yet never loses sight of her compassion and art. Time and again, Todd shows us what we expect and then shows us how much more there is to this world and everyone in it. Combined with the quiet Earth these characters move through it gives each encounter meaning, weight and at times, horror. The violence in the novel is brutal, untidy and occasional. The threat of it is constant. Even the reasoning behind the title, which is explored in one of the best pieces of narrative tidiness you’ll read this year, drives that message home. This world is fragile. It’s going to need help.
Whether these characters are up to the task or not isn’t in question by the novel’s end. Neither is the fact that this is not only a great debut but an amazing start to a larger story. Roll on book 2.
Defender is released today and can be found here. Check out the GoodReads page over here.