Please note: this review contains spoiler information (marked) near the end.
Possibly more recognisable for some as the author of The Guardian’s monthly science fiction review column, Eric Brown will be known to many followers of the Good Ship Sci-Fi through an extremely prolific career since the publication of his debut novel, Meridian Days, in 1992, arguably peaking at 1994’s brilliant, Engine Man.
Guardians Of The Phoenix sees Brown adapt a previously written short story into a full-sized novel. The story begins, as so many often do, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Ho hum, indeed. The oceans evaporated decades ago, leaving arid ocean floors stretching for thousands of miles between continents, and the ever-encroaching sands of a sun-blasted Europe force the few remaining groups of surviving humans further north to band together into tiny colonies around any water source they can find.
Scavenging a living in the dusty and deserted ruins of Paris is Paul, a young and well-mannered chap, whose only human company in the last fifteen years is the elderly Elise, for whom Paul cares and provides for.
Their seclusion is shattered, however, upon the arrival of a gang of strange travellers from one of the northern colonies (led by the brutal and psychotic German named, you guessed it, Hans), who have arrived in Paris chasing a rumour of a huge stockpile of supplies.
Paul’s first harsh introduction to the realities of survival in the wastes is in his observation of the murder and cannibalisation of one of these visitors, before yet another group of colonists arrives and draws the naive Paul into their conflict, taking him on a journey out of the only world he has ever known, but towards a salvation he never imagined.
None of this is the most original setup for a sci-fi yarn, I’m sure you’ll agree. Yet, beyond the predictable tropes and relatively linear plot lies a road story with enough suspense and incidental detail to make the narrative move effortlessly towards its conclusion without ever once dragging its feet.
Brown’s style is constantly engaging, and his descriptions of a scorched Earth and the practicalities of surviving there are forever laced with the overarching suggestion that these struggles are, in effect futile. In this regard it draws comparisons with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and while Guardians Of The Phoenix lacks the stark horror and weaving, poetic prose of McCarthy’s epic, its depiction of the depths of mankind’s capabilities when faced with annihilation is similarly depressing.
Brown even goes one further by presenting those who succumb to the unfortunate last resort of cannibalism as sympathetic characters, and it is touches like this that give the book a little more gravitas than the blurb on the back cover would suggest.
It is in its characters, however, where Guardians Of The Phoenix falters. All are positively two-dimensional, and none of their journeys or actions throughout the course of the story are in the least bit surprising. Paul is a feral kid with a heart of gold, Hans is a very bad man, etc.
Furthermore, the book only has two prominent female characters. One is a middle-aged quinquagenarian who is so desperately broody her uterus sighs as she walks, and the other is a nymphomaniacal hotty who drops her knickers at the merest hint of provocation, or to break the tension in an awkward lull in a conversation. A little reductionist, perhaps?
As a further note (and possible minor spoilers may follow, so if you are planning on reading the book you may wish to skip to the next paragraph), it was frustrating that Brown chose to both shroud the eventual destination of the travellers in mystery while simultaneously giving the book a title that effectively gives away the ending long before it arrives.
The book is certainly flawed. The characters are transparent and the plot is predictable, but I still found myself enjoying Guardians Of The Phoenix. Brown writes in a style that demands you keep reading for just one more chapter, a style somewhat reminiscent of another popular author with the surname Brown (although don’t let this put you off too much), and although it undoubtedly lacks the wealth of ideas and compelling characterisation of some of the author’s more celebrated works, it is in no way a bad read.
If you are a fan of Brown’s previous novels, then, through comparison alone, you may find yourself less appreciative of this one. However, though the author is not at his best here, this book could be a solid enough gateway into the back catalogue of one of the best and most prolific sci-fi authors writing today.
Guardians Of The Phoenix is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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