Hell’s Ditch by Simon Bestwick
The dream never changes: a moonless, starless night without end. The road she walks is black, bordered with round, white pebbles or nubs of polished bone; she can’t tell which but they’re the only white in the darkness, marking her way through the night.
In dreams and nightmares, Helen walks the Black Road. It leads her back from the grave, back from madness, back towards the man who caused the deaths of her family: Tereus Winterborn, Regional Commander for the Reapers, who rule the ruins of a devastated Britain.
On her journey, she gathers her allies: her old mentor Darrow, the cocky young fighter Danny, emotionally-scarred intelligence officer Alannah and Gevaudan Shoal, last of the genetically-engineered Grendelwolves.
Winterborn will stop at nothing to become the Reapers’ Supreme Commander; more than anything he seeks the advantage that will help him achieve that goal. And in the experiments of the obsessed scientist Dr Mordake, he thinks he has found it.
To Winterborn, Project Tindalos is a means to ultimate power; to Mordake, it’s a means to roll back the devastation of the War and restore his beloved wife to the living. But neither Winterborn nor Mordake understand the true nature of the forces they are about to unleash. Forces that threaten to destroy everything that survived the War, unless Helen and her allies can find and stop Project Tindalos in time.
I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again anyway, I’m hopelessly drawn to apocalyptic fiction. I don’t think I can fully explain why, but I always find it utterly fascinating. Perhaps it is the idea of humanity ending in its current form? I don’t know. Hell’s Ditch by Simon Bestwick is the latest cataclysm to gain my attention
The end of the world as we know it is not a pretty affair and Bestwick doesn’t sugar coat a thing. Britain is royally screwed by the time the narrative picks up. Twenty years after a brutal war, what is left of the population is scattered across the country. In the cities that still just about function, survivors are barely existing. Living on top of one another in shanty towns and refugee camps, the populace is controlled by a fascist like police force, known as The Reapers.
Elsewhere, biological and radioactive incidents have left vast swathes of the countryside no-go areas. Various gangs/tribes have started to devolve into something that is no longer quite human. A generation of children are growing up blissfully ignorant of how the world used to be. To them violence, sickness and death are the norm. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. The older characters mourn the loss of humanity, while their younger allies are far more accepting. To the youngsters the world just is what it is. They seem far better equipped to take things in their stride, they can’t mourn for what they don’t know.
Helen Damnation (wonderful name) traverses the wastelands of the UK haunted by the ghosts of her family. Fuelled by the prospect of revenge against The Reapers and their commander, there is a steely resolve within that keeps her going irrespective of the obstacles in her way. Her determination feels almost palpable. Whenever she falls, she picks herself up, dusts herself off and gets back to the task in hand.
Danny is another interesting character. Not quite fully grown, he exists in that awkward space between childhood and the adult he is destined to become. The evolution he experiences as he learns firstly how to be a soldier and then a leader is fascinating to watch. Especially at the point when you realise even after everything he suffers through he is still incredibly young. I can guarantee I would never have been able to survive his life experiences when I was that age, or even now come to think of it.
For me, the best villains are always those who don’t see themselves as villains at all. They feel entirely justified in their actions. Commander Tereus Winterborn is utterly convinced of his righteousness. Every action he takes is a measured response, designed to wipe out opposition and ensure his continued control. For him it is deceptively simple – everyone else is wrong and he is right. In an effort to try save those who are willing to follow his lead, Winterborn is placing his faith in science.
Dr Mordake, the brains behind Project Tindalos, is attempting to harness the powers of an ancient civilisation in an effort to reverse the damage that has been done. Unfortunately for him, and everyone else, his research is not going to evolve in quite the manner he had hoped. This thread of the narrative really allows Bestwick to flex his creative muscles. There is an air of cosmic unworldliness surrounding the work Mordake is doing. Inexplicable events are starting to manifest around the research lab and there are going to be consequences. Putting it bluntly, things get weirder and weirder. Watching all this weirdness unfold is a real highlight and great fun.
The final character I really enjoyed was Gevaudan Shoal. I’m going to remain purposefully tight lipped in this case however. I feel he is best experienced without any prior knowledge. Suffice to say he was the icing on this apocalyptic cake.
Thinking about it, all the characters are broken in one way or another. They all crave something that they are unlikely to ever achieve. Winterborn wants total power by any means necessary, Danny wants a world radically different from the one he grew up in. Helen wants blissful peace, while Shoal and Mordake all want to be with people they can no longer be with. If feels almost like everyone is experiencing their own personal version of Hell. Perhaps that’s kind of the point? The end of humanity will be experienced differently, and uniquely, by everyone.
Add some unexpectedly grotesque body horror* into the mix and you have a novel that happily presses every single one of my apocalyptic fiction buttons. Darkly entertaining and hugely ambitious in scope I think I’ll be adding this book to my list of go to apocalyptic fiction.
Tonally I felt that Hell’s Ditch shares a similar heritage as The Black Dawn duology by Joseph D’Lacey. Both narratives pick apart the horror of apocalyptic events, but also delve far deeper into the nature of humanity. They explore the primal fears that drive a society towards its own destruction.
I look forward to discovering where The Black Road series will take us next. Hell’s Ditch is published by Snow Books and is available from 1st December. A sequel will follow in the future, how very splendid.
*Honestly, properly icky. It made me make the noise “Euuuwww” out loud. That’s always a good sign in my opinion.