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BLOG Journeys In The Winterlands review

Alasdair Stuart checks out a literary steampunk triptych. Bet you want to know what one of them is…

Written by: C Allegra Hawksmoor, John Reppion and Dylan Fox
Published by Vagrants Among Ruins • http://www.amongruins.org/?page_id=301

The future died nine years ago. Earth was deep in the grip of a Steampunk industrial revolution, steam trains writing themselves across the countryside as colossal aerostats drifted overhead. Fortunes were made, lives were lost, the rich thrived as the poor struggled.

Then on All Souls Day it ended. A new star roared in the sky, burning it dark and turning anyone who saw it into the twisted, horrifying creatures known as the Affected. When the star faded, the world froze. Now, its inhabitants are split between the ragged group of human survivors, the Affected and the dreadful things, half-machine, half-alive, they build.

This is steampunk that's as dark as it comes, three stories set in a shattered, broken world that's only tied together through individual experience and story. Together, Hawksmoor, Reppion and Fox take this idea and use it to tell three stories, each connected, about the world, the people who are left and their twin insanities; the Affected's star-born dementia and the last humans' refusal to lay down and die.

The first story, “The Web Of The North”, explores exactly what powers this determination. Callista is a legendary warrior, a woman whose terrifying reputation is exceeded only by that of her mentor, Edward O'Malley, The Web Of The North. O'Malley was taken by the Affected and Callista, battling terrifying weather and Affected patrols, has tracked him to what's left of London. Callista has no idea whether anyone aside from her is still alive, and as a result is stunned to find a human, Santiago, living in an abandoned, partially ruined underground factory. At first, she and Santiago are cautiously happy to see one another, until Callista notices Santiago isn't eating, and the walls are covered with increasingly disturbing murals...

This first story does an excellent job of setting up the world and also dialling in on the thing that makes these characters special; their pig-headed refusal to be defeated. Callista is a terrifyingly competent soldier, a woman who has the blood of countless Affected on her hands. She's a relentless, efficient survival machine and her refusal to give up on O'Malley, a man who is almost certainly already dead, is just this side of insane. Similarly, Santiago, with his shut-in lifestyle and his obsessive art, is an outsider in every way. The way the two interact is fascinating, the power, and threat, shifting from one to the other constantly. By the end of the story, you've not only gained a greater understanding of the world and these two characters, but seen exactly how they change and strengthen one another. A different, better kind of Affected.

“Morgan's Solution”, the second story follows Josiah Morgan. Morgan is a pre-All Souls Day scientist, a man who has a disturbing idea about time travel and the ethics of it for not only the present, but every time period in history. This idea is contrasted with his imprisonment in an odd, ramshackle prison where he obsessively tries to remember his past, even as it falls away from him again and again. This is the most impressionistic of the pieces, metaphor and memory colliding with the simple mechanics of the actions Morgan still carries out. It's chilling in a very different way, as we see this clearly brilliant man broken down to nothing but obsession and repetition by an idea that made him and the consequences of it. It's an apparently simple but deceptively complex piece of fiction that's as clever as it is moving and one you'll find yourself re-reading almost straight away.

Finally, “The Last Stand Of Edward O'Malley” jumps forward in time a little. Callista has succeeded. She's rescued O'Malley, somehow still alive, and they're together but… not quite the same. O'Malley was paraded by the Affected for months, shown off as a battered, small husk of a man and not the hero humanity knows him as. It's changed him. Callista thinks it's made him weak and if it has, she has no compunctions killing him.

Except she can't.

Because it's O'Malley.

And he might not be broken.

And she desperately, desperately wants him not to be broken.

This last story is the gentlest of all three, which is a surprise given how much of it involves Callista trying to work out what to do about, and to, O'Malley. It's a story about being broken and what happens after it, the moment where you realize the very worst thing that could happen to you has and you're...still here. That sense of peace, of serenity is something that post-apocalyptic fiction almost never captures and it's done with real delicacy and grace here. It's also just part of a story that also takes in another look at how normal survivors live in the post All Souls Day world and also ties all three stories together.

This is the reason why these three work so well, because each one is built in or on the foundation of the last. That, in turn, highlights the genius of these stories and of having three authors work on them in unison; the stories mirror the survivors, building on what's gone before and turning it into something new but still completely human. This isn't just a book of stories about how the world ends, it's a book of stories built like they would be after the world has ended, scraps of information and memory tied together with determination and hope. Something wonderful, just visible in the snow.

Journeys In The Winterlands is a quietly brilliant collection. There's no discordance between any of the three stories, the ways they wrap around and through one another are elegant and clever and the world itself is equal parts horrifying and beautiful. This is steampunk fiction with a unique voice and a lot to say. Do yourself a favour, and listen.

Alasdair Stuart

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