Barricade by Jon Wallace

June 19, 2014

Kenstibec was genetically engineered to build a new world, but the apocalypse forced a career change. These days he drives a taxi instead.

A fast-paced, droll and disturbing novel, BARRICADE is a savage road trip across the dystopian landscape of post-apocalypse Britain; narrated by the cold-blooded yet magnetic antihero, Kenstibec.

Kenstibec is a member of the ‘Ficial’ race, a breed of merciless super-humans. Their war on humanity has left Britain a wasteland, where Ficials hide in barricaded cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors. Originally optimised for construction, Kenstibec earns his keep as a taxi driver, running any Ficial who will pay from one surrounded city to another.

The trips are always eventful, but this will be his toughest yet. His fare is a narcissistic journalist who’s touchy about her luggage. His human guide is constantly plotting to kill him. And that’s just the start of his troubles.

On his journey he encounters ten-foot killer rats, a mutant king with a TV fixation, a drug-crazed army, and even the creator of the Ficial race. He also finds time to uncover a terrible plot to destroy his species for good – and humanity too.

Wow, has it really been almost an entire week since I’ve read some apocalyptic fiction? This explains why I’m getting anxious for yet another fix. What can I say? I can’t seem to keep calm unless a fictional world is collapsing to rubble round about me. In this instance, the end of the world has a distinctly science-fictiony feel. Raise your arm, hail a cab, it’s time to devour the brand spanking new novel Barricade by Jon Wallace.

You just can’t beat an antihero can you? They’re just so much more interesting than your heroic sorts. It’s difficult not to get caught up with their roguish charms – flawed, self-centred and more often than not, utter bastards to boot. The main character in this novel certainly falls into more than one of those categories, on more than one occasion. I certainly expect that Kenstibec is going to prompt debate, readers will either love him or loathe him. He’s likely to be a divisive protagonist for many, and he’ll split opinion right down the middle. To some this artificial antihero will be a complete anathema, nothing but a soulless killing machine, while others will find his sardonic attitude a joy. Personally, I fall into the latter group. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure to begin with, but I warmed to Kenstibec the further I read. It helps that Wallace injects some drier than dry comic moments into Kenstibec’s travels, and these little gems help to subtly humanise the inhuman.

The other characters in Barricade are just as intriguing.

There is a poor Real, the Ficials name for humans, who is only ever referred to as Fatty. Wallace uses (and abuses) him as the emotional heart of the novel. Fatty has the misfortune of falling in with Kenstibec, and I think it’s fair to say he gets dragged through both the physical and psychological ringer. As Kenstibec and the other Ficials are lacking when it comes to emotion, it’s genuinely refreshing to find a character that’s the polar opposite. Fatty’s ranting and raving, moans and tirades, help to illustrate just how alien and different from humanity the Ficials are. They may look like picture perfect versions of us, but rest assured they’re not. Fatty is also suffering from a rather unfortunate disease so the prospect of an imminent painful death is really dampening his mood.

The final member of this dysfunctional little trifecta is a Ficial called Starvie. Prior to uprising she was optimised as a pleasure worker and now works as a report in the Edinburgh barricade. For me, Starvie was the only real mis-step in the entire cast. It’s a minor thing, but I think I was expecting something else for her journey. It’s a shame, but she just came across as a little under developed for my taste.

Scattered throughout the narrative there are a handful of chapters detailing the last days before the apocalypse, when Kenstibec was just a number and worked a lowly construction job. These really help to offer the reader valuable insight into how the Ficials were treated historically, and gives a good frame of references to their motivations and actions.

Where the writing really excels is in depicting the remnants of society in this brutal, hellish vision of future Britain. The two groups, Ficial and Real, couldn’t be more different from one another. What’s left of humanity are barely surviving. Their environment has been utterly trashed and any number of horrible diseases and infections run rampant through the survivors. Along with that violence and death are the order of the day. Things are positively Darwinian and its survival of the fittest all the way.

There is little denying that Barricade is a pretty hardcore experience, it’s definitely not for those faint of heart. This is stark uncompromising science fiction that grabs you firmly by the throat and refuses to let go.  More often than not events spiral towards the dark, or at least the darkly comic, and everything has a delightfully grimy feel. Works for me, I’m not looking for a sanitised, clinical apocalypse. I want a writer to bring the world to an end with a BANG not a whimper. The writing needs to revel in the anarchy and chaos, unleash a bit of mayhem. I’m glad to say Barricade manages to do exactly that. This is a book that’s bound to appeal to those readers that enjoy their fiction with a raw edge. As far as debut novels go this has just about everything you could want. I’ll be actively keeping an eye out for more from Jon Wallace in the future.

Barricade is published by Gollancz and is available now.


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