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Book Review: 'Defender' by G.X. Todd

A Post-Apocalyptic Book Club Book

Eight years from now the United States has crumbled into a post-apocalyptic shell of itself, following a mass phenomenon of domestic murders and suicides.

Yup, that about sums the catalyst event up. Sci-fi achievement unlocked.  

Thanks. Said to be triggered by voices in peoples' heads, society has devolved into a horrific lawlessness.

That seems a bit much. Everyone always blames the Voices. 

Shut up, inner Voice, I’m trying to write a review.

Sorry. 

In this world, still hauntingly familiar to our own, the psychopaths and the sadists easily become petty kings, primed to prey on the weak.  Motivated by one side or the other of the great divide between those with the voices and those without, they organise their resources for war, resorting to brutality when it pleases them in order to learn more about this mysterious force.  Some with voices, like the mysterious Ruby, seem to know all about them and become their target.  It is on a main highway of this world that we meet Pilgrim, a seasoned survivalist loner, as he encounters Lacey, a vulnerable teenager but survivor in her own right.  An unlikely duo with surprising chemistry, what follows is a fast-paced thriller as they search for Lacey’s family and encounter the worst this new world order has to offer them along the way.

Sounds depressing. 

It kind of is, actually.  It’s also incredibly violent, intolerably so for some readers.  However, as a neatly merged collection of dystopian and horror tropes, with a cracking pace and an excellent plot, Defender at first strikes one as a very credible and entirely readable thriller.

Well, even THAT’S hard to find these days. 

Though certainly not a bad thing, the confusion I had lay less in its story and more in the fact that, for a solid book, it was generally receiving more positive reviews than expected.

You know book websites inflate their ratings so people buy the book right? 

Not just from companies wanting to sell books like Amazon (4.5 stars) and Waterstones UK (5 stars) but from other casual readers on peer sites like Goodreads.

Really?  So how is a book I enjoyed, but feel like I’ve read before, resonating so remarkably well with readers? 

Firstly, you didn’t read the book, I did.

Same thing.  

Well, I did all the work.

Sigh. 

To answer your question though, it was a while before the answer hit me like a lightning bolt.  It’s not the revival of well-worn tropes that’s getting people hot under the collar.  Although it is kind of cool to read through and think of the other works Defender reminds you of.

Wait, what does it remind you of? 

Well, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic desert and revolves around a road trip storyline, like Mad Max.  The devolution of humanity into lawlessness, depravity and animalism resulting in cannibalism and sadism is very reminiscent of the original version of The Hills Have Eyes and Wolf Creek, where the antagonists go feral in the wilderness and  prey on passing motorists.  These two tropes enable Defender to place one foot in the thriller genre and the other in the horror genre.  As the novel progresses into more sophisticated thriller scenarios, we meet antagonists that could be played by Woody Harrelson’s resourceful military leader character in War for the Planet of the Apes. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just… it feels very familiar, leaning on predictable.

The main characters are pretty interesting though aren’t they? 

Yes, they are, which is a good thing, because it’s a character-driven plot.  The Pilgrim character is admittedly a little confusing at times.  His narration is constantly preoccupied with scanning for threats and self-preservation yet he constantly fails to observe them when they occur and risks his personal safety and those of others by engaging with the horrors rather than avoiding them.  Still, if he didn’t we’d have no plot.  I guess we can attribute it to his ultimately nihilist attitude toward his own personal safety.  On some conscious level he doesn’t really want to live.

I guess. 

He does in fact undergo a very likeable character arc, starting out as the mysterious nihilist loner with a very basic ethical code of conduct and gradually finding renewed purpose in his role as the Defender.

I thought his back story was a little weak.  

You’d be right.  Pilgrim doesn’t seem to remember anything in his past that informs the decidedly moral choices he makes.  Closer to the end he reveals a few things about his family that explain his instincts to defend others but ultimately his arc, as enjoyable as it is, is still shrouded in mystery by the end.  It’s a four part series though, so hopefully we’ll learn more about him later on, as well as his relationship with the mysterious Ruby.

And his love interest?  Lacey? 

Now wait just a minute.  That’s not his love interest.  That’s a 16-year-old girl who’s never met a man before.

Are you sure?  

I thought it was more of a protege relationship.  Plot-wise, Lacey needed a strong mentoring relationship with a survivalist character so that she herself could have a character arc.  Think about it, she starts off having survived with just her Grandmother on an isolated farm, sheltered from the horror that’s befallen the country.  She’s been gifted some basic self-sufficiency skills but she’s ultimately very naive about the perverse nature of this new world.  The entire relationship between she and Pilgrim was designed to transfer his survival skills and instincts over to her.  It’s even represented symbolically at one key moment.

Sounds like Besson's, "The Professional'.

For a Voice in my head, you sure have seen a lot of movies.  Good movies!  The relationship between Lacey and Pilgrim does remind me a lot of the dynamic between Natalie Portman’s 12-year-old assassin character and her fully grown male assassin mentor in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional.  This was a refreshing refrain from a romance-driven plot that somehow managed to make something that could easily have been read as distasteful justifiably compelling instead.  That feels like a good analogy to Pilgrim and Lacey.

It also reminds me of a slightly more problematic Besson character… Lee Loo. 

What?  From The Fifth Element?  She seemed pretty badass, what was wrong with her depiction?

B.S.Y. 

Huh?

Born.  Sexy.  Yesterday. 

What?!

Oh, just let me write this bit of the review.  
Born sexy yesterday is a common but often overlooked trend in romance films where, more often than not, the main character is an exceptionally ordinary male juxtaposed with a woman, usually full-grown, who has some plot-based reason for only just becoming familiar with the world the man lives in now.  Key examples of this are Tom Hanks vs. Daryl Hannah (the mermaid) in Splash; Harrison Ford vs Sean Young (human clone) in Bladerunner; Dan Ackroyd vs Kim Basinger (alien) in My Stepmother is an Alien.  In each of these movies the male character is generally the female character's first encounter with men.  The male character becomes responsible for educating the female character about the world and indirectly, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not, contributes significantly to shaping her feelings about him.  Their manipulations to win her affections are creepy given these women are essentially vulnerable children.  Lee Loo in The Fifth Element is the most powerful in her own right compared to the other examples given but once awoken on earth she still needs the guidance of Bruce Willis’ protagonist character in order to navigate the modern world.  Incidentally they do end up together with it largely implied that this kindness is the basis of Lee Loo’s attraction for him.  

Okay, well the navigating the foreign world part definitely applied in Defender.  As a protege relationship, handing skills from one survivor to another, it’s not an invaluable relationship either.  But sexual chemistry?  I don’t think that’s happening with Pilgrim and Lacey at all.  She held on to his belt once so he could carry her through a dangerous building, just like she wrapped her arms around his waist on the motorbike.  From what little we know of his back story his affection for her and their other travel companion, Alex, is based on the affection he held for the now-dead women in his family.

Well perhaps I’m being pre-emptively cynical.  When it comes to the film adaptation, which do you think Hollywood will go for, the subtle mix of respect and sentimentality to develop an arresting and interesting relationship between two polar opposite characters, or focusing on making the Lacey character Born Sexy Yesterday?  

Touché.

Okay so the characters are interesting and have a compelling, non-sexual relationship.  Not original enough for you? 

Well no, like I said earlier, we have actually seen it before in Leon: The Professional.

I said that. 

This is getting confusing.

So what IS interesting about this movie?  

Well, it’s the central hook of this novel, the eponymous Voices, that’s resonating with readers.  The solely unique hook to this title is it central mystery—the origin of the Voices and the extent to which they represent danger.

Ultimately... the marketing for this book, the first in a series, pitches it as a post-apocalyptic thriller to rival Steven King.  While much of this pitch obviously orients around raising the profile of the series and aiding readers to identify its genre, this also suggests it is a solid page-turner but not particularly original.  An analysis of the sci-fi tropes to be found in this text indicates this isn’t a completely outlandish conclusion.  The sole unique hook to this title is it central mystery—the origin of the Voices and the extent to which they represent danger.  Coupled however with solid plotting, rapid pace, and a sizzling, but refreshingly non-sexual chemistry between the two protagonists, it does make for a smashingly good read.

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Book Review: 'Defender' by G.X. Todd
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