SOME SPOILERS AHEAD BUT I DO MY BEST TO LIMIT THEM, TRUST ME
The apocalypse may not seem like the best place to ask the big questions of life – who am I? Why am I? Who are my real friends and why? – but in Jay Kristoff’s pedal to the freaking end of the world metal world where the action is hard and fast, and the feelings and thoughts equally as deep, they’re exactly the kinds of questions you should be asking.
Perhaps not in the midst of one of the full-bore, take no prisoners battles that dot the narrative landscape like the ramshackle but functioning cities and towns of the glassed-up world everyone now calls home but eventually yes, because well, it’s that just kind of apocalypse, and the characters who come bursting from the pages of his books are not your ordinary denizens of the end of civilisation as we currently know it (but they don’t).
DEV1AT3, the sequel to the equally alpha-numerically titled LIFEL1K3, is that rare literary creature crawling from the existential unease and alarm that infuses our current troubled age; not only does it brilliantly and cogently articulate the fears we all carry like “what the fuck is happening” baggage, but it does so with a heady mix of action, theatre, humanity and the kind of intense therapising you would likely usually leave to the therapist’s couch.
But this is the end of the world, therapists, like so much of the pre-nuclear apocalypse, are pretty thin on the ground, and you have to take your deep, introspective moments when you can get them.
Especially when you’re gutsy, oneliner-quipping, fresh from the slums teenager Lemon Fresh – so named because she was abandoned at birth in a box with that detergent’s branding emblazoned on the side – who has in the first book of her adventures watched her entire life comes brutally and scarringly undone.
“The mention of her bestest’s name brought a fresh ache in Lemon’s chest, a stillness to the group. Ezekiel glanced back toward Babel, and she could see how bad he was hurting, too. They’d had no choice. Evie had them to leave. But …
“DON’T YOU DARE SAY HER NAME,” the logika growled.
Ezekiel blinked, turned back to the logika.
“I miss her too, Cricket,” he murmured. (P. 17)
The girl she thought was her bestest Eve, who scrapped with her in the somewhat-functioning ruins of human society where its dog-eat-dog, gangs-bash-the-innocent, religious-nutjobs-enslave-the-gullible – so basically now but with nuclear waste and robots, really – is, in fact, a synthetic lifeform who’s now decided to make some questionable, and dare we say, murderous poor life choices, Cricket, Eve’s logika (robot) protector is not who he used to be and Ezekiel, the lifelike with the heart of gold (unlike his siblings) is separated from her.
Where on a War 3.0 and War 4.0 world, that still feels like its smouldering in the errant works of man, can she go and what she do?
The thrill of DEV1AT3, like LIKEL1K3, before it, is that it leaves precious time for Lemon to open up an Excel spreadsheet and diligently plot where’s she off to next. (Thankfully, it looks like Microsoft has gone the way of the dinosaurs in this Mad Max-ian brave new world which means she is spared that kind of tech hell the rest of us live every day in our cubicles of corporate doom.)
Instead, she is, to our inestimable, highly-adrenalised reading pleasure, forced to make it all up on the run, trying to deal with her mutant-like power to fry electrical circuits with just a bit of concentration while dodging corporate bounty hunters who want her for their own weaponised purposes. (Yep, corporations survive the end of the world, battling it out for control of an earthquake and nuclear weapon-scarred Yousay.)
What makes DEV1AT3 such immersively stunning and compelling reading is that it never once sacrifices its innately thoughtfully human soul for one jot of its throw you in the deep end action.
Like Cricket battling it out in the Wardome, where giant robots face off in future nightmarish coliseums for the entertainment of the grubby masses, Kristoff’s tale goes hard at it from the word go but always with its heart worn very much on its raggedly survivalist sleeve.
If you think these two seemingly discordant elements can’t possibly co-exist in the one book without cannibalising each other like starving apocalyptic survivors, think again because Kristoff manages to dance like Ezekiel in fluid, poetic battle mode, from one action-fuelled moment of insanity to another heartfelt, deep dive into the soul kind of discussion.
It works, quite apart from his effortlessly gorgeous writing which is a work of art in itself, because the author never once forgets that while the world may be end, humanity doesn’t end with it.
Sure, it’s messy, horrific, cruel and unsparing and not the kind of place you really want to raise your kids; BUT, and this is important, that doesn’t mean everyone is a douche out for their own ends.
Okay, yes, most of them are but Lemon, Ezekiel, Cricket and a number of people like Grimm, Diesel and Abraham who join them in their mad quests to save the world and each other, actually give a damn about friendship, fiercely, passionately and unremittingly so, and it’s this relational glue that makes this book and its predecessor such emotionally-evocative reads.
“‘No way,’ Lemon whispered, looking again at that silver pendant around Lillian’s neck. ‘It can’t be.’
The Major frowned. ‘Miss Fresh, are you all right?’
“Lemme think a minute,” she said, walking in tight circles, her chest thumping, her mind spinning. It was too weird, too heavy to process, too much to—
“Just let me THINK!” Lemon shouted. (P. 219)
The message in the middle of this madly chaotic pell-mell dash to end and save the world, with sort of redeemed cybernetic bounty hunters and fire-ravaged settlements that weren’t much to begin with thank you very much, is that humanity survives the end of all things and that it may not come from the places you expect.
Not all of that humanity is good and some of it is damn well deranged such as the Brotherhood who use religion as an agent of theocratic control – OK fair enough, that kind of twisted belief is basically business as usual, pre and post the missiles falling – and Kristoff lets the bad and the good have full vent in a story that barely, but gloriously, pauses for breath.
The point is though that humanity survives, that it matters, that people and people-like people matter and that fighting for friends, loved ones and principles is not Hallmark-ian fool’s errand in a world where denizens are more likely to knife you than embrace you.
For all its near-future, metal-clad, apocalyptic badassery, and it comes alive with the kind of worldbuilding, in your face, bright and alive chutzpah that most authors dream of but never achieve, DEV1AT3 is, at heart, a story of friendship, of identity, and of finding the things that really matter even when the bombs fall and it’s every man, woman and robot for themselves.