Debut author GX Todd’s Defender shows there’s still life to be found in the post-apocalypse, offering a rich blend of horror and heart with a highly effective high-concept genre conceit.
The little voices we all have in the back of our heads bring about the end of civilisation as we know it, convincing their hosts to hurt themselves and others. Several years after this catastrophic event begins, a taciturn loner called Pilgrim travels through ruined America, accompanied by his (mostly) non-violent Voice.
When they come across a headstrong teenage girl named Lacey who’s determined to travel east to find her sister, Pilgrim agrees to give her a ride. However, it’s a dangerous world out there, especially when you get tangled up with a terrifying gang of Voice-hunting survivors.
The end of the world is a busy place in genre fiction, and while there are some obvious influences here (particularly Stephen King, and not just The Stand), Todd carves out a space of her own. It’s certainly not for the squeamish, with frequent bloody violence (there’s a reason for the Clive Barker comparisons) and a tendency to kick our heroes when they’re down, but there is a real warmth that comes from those characters as they trade POV chapters and gradually come to depend on each other. It’s tough, but it’s not mean, and it definitely makes an impact.
As for the voices, the author cannily keeps a lot of details hidden. It’s not even clear if Pilgrim’s Voice (wry, sensible and cautious) knows itself, although it clearly knows more than it tells our characters.
There are times throughout the novel when it feels like things are being too obviously withheld (there are three books still to go in this series), and some of the secondary characters could use a little more shading, but this is sharp, gruelling and gripping, and we can’t wait to explore this harsh world further and see what Todd has to offer us in part two.