Title: The Marsh People
Author: Valentine Williams
Summary (from Goodreads)
In a post-industrial age, the last ‘free’ humans cower in hiding from the mysterious Masters and struggle for life in merciless marshlands. The Masters – human or alien – are never seen but rule the crumbling cities they dominate with fiendishly trained, dogs. The ferocious mastiffs are also the near-feral police force that raids pitiful villages and herds their occupants like sheep into inhuman city slavery and mindlessness. But city slave Scummo finds his latent humanity stirred when an orphaned child comes into his care … and they go on the run into the boggy wastelands, living rough, starving but skirting scattered tiny villages in constant fear of ‘the herdings’ by packs of pitiless hunting dogs, electronically programmed by the Masters to enslave or cull village-dwellers. Scummo and his young charge, Kelpin, re-learn long-forgotten survival skills from Bethyl, the fiercely independent female leader of one Marsh People group. But in the bloody struggle to survive against desperately competing wandering human bands, can Scummo and Kelpin avoid a return to primitive brutality, dehumanizing ignorance and even cannibalism or hope to replace the building blocks of civilization before it’s too late? And are the mysterious Masters secretly monitoring their every move, ready and able to destroy the last ragged vestiges of human liberty by unleashing the dogs of final war? In Scummo and Kelpin’s hair-raising odyssey of life as outcasts in a terrifying marshland, alive with both human and unworldly predators, Valentine Williams prompts us to ponder just how thin the veneer of civilization and humanity might be. Would mankind band together against a common enemy or would it turn on its own … just as the dogs so quickly became man’s worst enemy rather than his best friend.
This is an odd one. There was an awful lot I really liked about it but at the same time, there were a few quirks that I didn’t like.
The story is reminiscent of many dystopia/survival genre things. There are a central group of characters to whom many bad, and good, things happen. There are deaths, relationships are formed, food is usually short, and wild animals are prone to attack. Which is good, because I like all of that sort of stuff. It’s why I watched Survivor for the short run that had on the BBC and why The Stand by Stephen King is still one of my favourite books.
There was a lot of great imagination on show – Scummo and Kelpin’s world was horribly realised, and the psychology behind the apathy of the city dwellers to do anything to change their lot all too believable. I loved the vicious eel creatures that dwelled in the water, ready to pick off any unsuspecting swimmers, and all the time there were little details that suggest the author knows a lot more about the world than she felt the need to let on. Another thing I really like in a dystopian novel.
At times I felt the plot was a little episodic, with no overall arc – besides the mysterious Masters, who I’ll come to in a moment – but in a lot of ways, this worked, because the story was less about a cataclysmic battle of good vs. evil, more about the small evils that humans are capable of committing, the constant struggle to resist giving in to those base urges and the question of why some people are more successful at that than others. Occasionally I felt the niggling need for the plot to have a bit of build up, but the more I read, the more I felt the senselessness of a lot of it was deliberate – a reflection of what life would really be like. Deaths are undramatic, and not played for tears, a bottle of water spilled in the opening sequence – the only bottle the characters have – is a reflection of random chaos, not a plot driver.
The characters were at times confusing – so many introduced so quickly meant I had a bit of a hard time getting a handle on people’s ages and personalities – but after a while became rounded and relatable, from fierce Kelpin, to quiet but determined Bethyl.
The narrative jumped around a bit between these characters, which is where this book started to jar with me a little. At one point, the narrative, previously 3rd person, switches to Kelpin’s 1st person perspective, and occasionally conversations are written out like script dialogue. I can sort of see – with so many characters involved in a discussion – why this has been done, but it felt a bit out of place, throwing me from the narrative.
Every so often, the narrative switched to the Masters, orchestrators of the situations our characters find themselves in, who appear to be doing some science experiment. This was my most major grumble with the book. I loved the idea of some people conducting a giant experiment on the population, watching them with cameras and manipulating them with food packages, but felt by the end that I either needed to know much more about them, or much less. As a mysterious threat, hanging over the heads of the survivors, who were never really sure what they were doing, or when they would strike, they could have been really scary. Seeing more of them could have tied the different threads of the story together in a much more typical way, providing an overall enemy, and the good vs evil battle. As it was, they were neither here nor there – present, but mostly as observers who occasionally discussed events at the end of chapters.
So, to summarise, a lot that I liked – survival, savage animal attacks, people being mean to each other and fighting for scraps in a dystopian marshland while our group of protagonists try valiantly to be the sort of survivors we all imagine we’d be: honourable and fair. However, a few quirks of narrative perspective and a threat that never really built to what I was anticipating left me feeling a little dissatisfied, but not so far as to say that I didn’t enjoy it.