Book review: Tide of Souls, by Simon Bestwick

August 12, 2009 by
Filed under: Book reviews 

tideofsoulsSeeing this on the shelves was a joy to behold, not only because it’s the latest in Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead imprint, (the previous tome I read, Al Ewing’s I, Zombie was a successful if somewhat quirky amalgam of sf (alien invasion), noir crime (private investigator), horror (bucket loads of the gory stuff) and the undead (the private investigator)), but also because Simon Bestwick‘s name adorned the rather day-glo cover that rather cheapens this powerful and decidedly different take on the zombie-trope.

To this reader, Bestwick is amongst the frontrunners of the niche world of the macabre ghost story; his A Hazy Shade of Winter was the first Ash Tree Press title I bought. Not only did his tales of contemporary hauntings, both in the mind and of the land, take a firm hold on me, they also alerted me to that publisher’s high quality catalogue. His latest collection, All the Pictures of the Dark is available from Grayfriar Press – I’m three stories in and have no hesitation recommending it on the strength of those alone. Plus Bestwick’s up for a British Fantasy Award for Best Novella with The Narrows in September at the Fantasycon in Nottingham. Now he’s been given the chance to write a mass-market paperback and the tantalising possibility of him lending his powers of atmospheric suggestion to a full-blown zombie apocalypse was one I could not deny mself, and I applaud Abbadon for adding him to their roster.

Tide of Souls is first and foremost an environmental apocalypse, of which zombies are an integral element. The seas rise and engulf the United Kingdom, (and most likely the rest of the world), but the action is set in Northern England where Bestwick lives. The book is cleverly divided into three parts, each told by a different narrator, each narrator linked to each other by circumstance. Katja Wencewska is a Polish immigrant who has been tricked into a hideous world of sex slavery, her passport taken and all her money gone.

We first encounter her locked in a top-floor room in the brothel where she ‘works’ as the waters devour Manchester. Making it to the roof Katja watches as groups of survivors huddle on other rooftops as the rain continues to fall, and group-by-group they’re picked off as drowned and now mysteriously reanimated corpses with green-glowing eyes emerge from the depths to feed. Fighting desperately, Katja is encouraged by the memories and words of her deceased father, a member of the Special Forces, who taught her to look after herself – weapons, martial arts, that sort of looking after yourself.

The middle section of the book follows Robert McTarn, a former Sergeant, who’s been forced to re-enlist due to the rapidly deteriorating situation. At Fullwood Army Base in Lancashire his team are briefed as they watch footage of an SAS squad being ripped apart by green-eyed monsters. McTarn’s been recruited to find maverick scientist, Dr. Benjamin Stiles a specialist in marine biology who’s retired due to ill-health, and the insistent voices in his head, the voices of the dead. On his last diving trip he’d suffered the bends in a rapid and panicked ascent. Stiles’ last know location is a small village in North East lancashire: Barley. As Katja’s fight for survival and McTarn’s mission puts them on a course towards each other, Bestwick forces them to traverse a submerged and deadly landscape: Katja in an old narrowboat more used to sedate canal journeys than the storms battering the waters that swirl with the swimming dead; and McTarn and his squad as they fly across the county, unable to stop and help the survivors on high-ground – survivors who will have much more to deal with than rising waters…

The last section revolves around Stiles, explaining the circumstances behind his accident and why he might just be the reason for, and have the solution, to the chaos. It’s here that Bestwick excels, giving Tide of Souls a unique place in the zombie sub-genre. Bestwick has clearly thought long and hard about the genesis of his zombies and their raison d’etre is explained in satisfying detail – something of a rarity in this sub-genre. Unique biological, behavioural and entirely logical traits are exhibited by the ‘nightmares’ (as they’re referred to, and truth be told they’re not strictly zombies in the Romero tradition) but Bestwick manages to keep that degree of separation at exactly the right distance from us; when a zombie evolves it usually turns towards the human once again. Not so in Tide of Souls, as Bestwick’s grounding in the classic supernatural and weird tale ensures the nightmares recall the eery dripping ghosts of John Carpenter’s The Fog, and the relentless, gnarled Nazi zombies from Shockwaves, rather than the running athletes of the Dawn of the Dead remake.

We were about ten yards up from the farmhouse when Akinbode pointed down the slope and shouted.
They stood in the shallows below the farmhouse. It lapped around the knees of the two adults and the waists of the the two older children. The toddler clung to its mother. They stared at us with their slack, empty faces and glowing eyes, but they didn’t move.

SPOILER ALERT: As mentioned, this tale is primarily a global environmental apocalypse. The rising waters are a result of climate change, but the undead are urged on by an elemental force, (similar in its collective consciousness to the yrr in Frank Schätzing’s sf-eco classic, The Swarm), evolved from the emotional and physical pollution of human activity across the world’s oceans. This force gradually develops a degree of awareness as it seeks to regain something it has lost. Bestwick’s nightmares are its eyes and ears, its collective learning, and its ravenous undead aquatic army. END OF SPOILER ALERT.

As this awareness grows Tide of Souls flows into something else, something entirely unexpected and relatively unexplored within zombie literature: a hauntingly atmospheric love story set amongst scenes of breathless battle, heroism, self-sacrifice and Lovelockian speculation.

Tide of Souls is recommended without reservation.


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