Barricade by Jon Wallace, the author’s debut novel, is the first in a trilogy set in a post-apocalypse Britain. It’s a pretty standard dystopian setup – humans build artificial life, stuff goes wrong, war ensues and ruins everything for everyone involved – except, unusually, it’s seen through the eyes of one of the artificial beings, or Ficials. A construction worker by ‘optimisation’, Kenstibec is now a taxi driver, and is hired to take a journalist (another Ficial called Starvie) from Edinburgh to London. To do so he has to find a way out of the Edinburgh barricade, past the besieging army of Reals (normal humans to you and me) and through a country prowled by tribes of half-feral humans out for Ficial blood.
It’s sort of equal parts Mad Max and The Terminator (the tagline is “A road trip through the hell we built”), but straight away it’s an interesting reversal to see through the eyes of a Ficial, and not a Real. Wallace keeps us guessing for a while as to what actually happened – who landed the first blow and why, and what shape the conflict took – but he does a fine job of building a convincing world for Kenstibec & co. to travel through, and the whole concept sits together really well. Structurally it’s told mostly through Kenstibec’s past tense narration, but each chapter is preceded by a short flashback to before the war in which Kenstibec is watching things happen in present tense, and much of the exposition comes from these short scenes.
Kenstibec and the other Ficials are essentially super-humans, designed to take a beating and keep working, but they’re cut off from their leadership, massively outnumbered and hampered by being optimised for specific functions. Wallace imbues them with a delightful sense of bafflement around Reals, whose illogical behaviour doesn’t conform to the Ficials’ organised worldview, and by introducing an…interesting Real as a travelling companion (to say more would spoil things), he gets to make some really interesting comparisons. This isn’t a black and white world – while the Reals are devolved, diseased and bloodthirsty, and the Ficials are (largely) cold, efficient and emotionless, when they’re forced together and not trying to kill each other you can see both the differences and the similarities.
Arguably there’s nothing new here, and plot-wise things are largely pretty straightforward, but Wallace has done a great job of world building and has created some really interesting and engaging characters. It’s a fast-paced story full of explosive set pieces under inventive and entertaining circumstances, but it’s the bickering, chalk and cheese characters who bring it to life. If you look beneath the surface there’s plenty of commentary on people rising above their limits to become more than their programming (or not, depending on the characters) and the danger of meddling with nature, but at the same time it’s an absolute page turner that keeps you gripped from start to finish. It’s great fun and works perfectly well as a standalone book, but also bodes very well indeed for the rest of the series.