It’s election time in New Babylon, and President Maggie Delgado is running for re-election but is threatened by the charismatic populist Ted Rust. Newly appointed City Commissioner Georg Ratner is given the priority task to fight the recent invasion of Synth in the streets of the capital, a powerful hallucinogen drug with a mysterious origin. When his old colleague asks him for help on another case and gets murdered, things become more and more complicated, and his official neutrality becomes a burden in the political intrigue he his gradually sucked into. Supported by Laura, his trustful life partner and the Egyptian goddess Nut, Ratner decides to fight for what he believes in, no matter the cost.
Review by Linda Hepworth
This gripping story is divided into twenty-three parts, each comprising a number of short chapters, many of which are just a page long, some just a paragraph. When I first started reading I did wonder whether this style would feel too disruptive but it never did, if anything I found that it added an intensity and urgency to the story-telling. I think this is testament to the virtuosity of the author’s writing style, his total control over his use of language, making every word count as, step by step, he revealed the multi-layered depths to this complex, thought-provoking and unsettling story. I’m going to resist the temptation to go into detail about any specific aspects of how the story unfolds because it’s the surprising twists and turns which make for such a pleasurable reading experience. However, Seb’s well-paced and evocative story-telling quickly drew me deep into the dystopian city-state of New Babylon, a world which, with its political corruption, tyranny, power struggles, xenophobia, economic uncertainty and the threat from a powerful new drug, felt all too recognisably topical! Georg Ratner’s reflection that “morals was a word that had been erased a long time ago from New Babylon politics” felt chilling in its familiarity.
I found the author’s portrayal of such totally convincing and vibrant characters to be a constant source of delight, especially the multifaceted and deeply-loving relationship between Georg, who enjoys punk music and industrial rock and drinking whisky, and his wife Laura, a teacher and political activist, always ready to challenge injustice and be prepared to take action in order to bring about change. Although in his role as a cop Georg is part of the establishment, it’s clear that his instincts are liberal and Laura’s challenges, reflecting her role as his alter-ego, enable him to negotiate a path through the inevitable conflicts he experiences when doing his job. However, there is another woman in Georg’s life from whom he seeks support and guidance, She is Nũt, the Egyptian goddess of the sky who had first visited him in a dream when he was investigating a murder, and who is now someone to whom turns and silently communicates when he needs to find focus and clarification of his confused thoughts and feelings. I loved the mystical and the philosophical elements which this relationship brought to the story, all contributing to me finding Georg such an interesting and likeable character.
A theme reflecting how art and culture can be used as subversive weapon in any regime which uses oppression to control its citizens ran like a central thread through the storytelling, just as the hallucinogenic drug Synth came to feel almost like a character in its own right as the effects of its presence in the city wove through the story. Regarded as a “political drug” by the politicians, dangerous because “it makes people believe in other realities … makes them escape the system”, it became central to the candidates’ electioneering campaigns, with demands that its source must be tracked down and the drug eradicated. These themes alone would provide rich material for discussion, making this an ideal choice for book groups.
Each of the twenty-three parts of this novel begins with a brief epigraph introducing illustrated tarot-style cards – The Fool, The Magician, The Lovers, The High Priestess, Justice, to name just a few. These not only provided a rich source of enjoyment and humour but were also thought-provoking – as I finished each section I frequently found myself re-visiting them to reflect on the ideas they contained! One of the characters is a hierophant, a person who shows or reveals secret things … this seems a particularly apt description of Seb’s talents as a writer!
Although it has elements of science fiction, political satire, thriller, dystopian-noir, spiritualism and mysticism, I think this is a story which defies being constrained by being shoe-horned into a single genre. Rather, the brilliance of the writing lies in the fact that the author has been able to combine all these elements into such a coherent and satisfying whole. When I finished the book, I felt bereft of the company of its main characters so a plea to Seb – I hope it won’t be too long before you offer your readers an opportunity to become reacquainted with them!
With many thanks to Tricia at Meerkat Press for an ARC of this wonderful story in exchange for an honest review.
Group Read: 5
Personal Read: 5
Meerkat Press, Paperback (11th August 2020)