‘Red Queen’ by H. M. Brown

RedQueen

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Books Australia; 268 pages; 2009.

I’m always intrigued by dystopian fiction so when I stumbled upon this debut novel, set in Australia after a deadly virus has ravaged the world, I couldn’t resist buying it.

Red Queen is the name of the constantly mutating and highly infectious virus which has wiped out most of the human population. The only survivors are “in small groups or families in the country and on farms”.

Brothers Rohan and Shannon Scott are two of those survivors. They live in a secluded cabin in the Australian bush designed specifically as a hideaway should there be an apocalypse. It was built by their now-dead father, who had “a different end-of-the-world theory every week”. It’s alternatively powered and accessible by four-wheel-drive only. The brothers grow their own fruit and vegetables and keep chickens and sheep. And just in case they run out of food and supplies they have a secret bunker (built, again, by dad) stuffed to the brim with canned goods, flour, sugar, wine, clothing and anything else they could possibly need to survive that little bit longer.

But they’re extra cautious about protecting their territory, defending it at all times with loaded guns, until one evening a strange woman, Denny, slips in under the radar and makes herself at home. Her presence changes everything, as a power struggle develops, and the two brothers find themselves falling for her charms.

But all is not as it seems. There’s a slightly menacing overtone, helped in part by Rohan’s frank and rather bullish admission that if Denny leaves “and tries to come back again, or puts us under any risk whatsoever of contamination, I’ll shoot you”.

The tension increases when it becomes clear that Denny’s actions could put all their lives in jeopardy. But because the story is narrated by Shannon, the softer of the two brothers, we only ever get his take on events, making it difficult to determine whether Denny’s intentions are innocent or malicious.

Sadly, I found the characters, particularly the brothers, to be poorly drawn: Rohan is the stereotypical older brother, a bully with a raging temper, while Shannon, with his pony-tail and penchant for playing the guitar, is his weak-willed sibling. Denny is pretty much unknowable, although I suspect that’s deliberate in order to give her an air of mystery.

Fortunately, the cracking narrative pace more than makes up for these faults, although the ending, with everything all neatly wrapped up, does feel a little rushed.

But overall this is an entertaining, sexy read, more psychological thriller than dystopian novel (although someone clearly thinks it’s also a horror novel, because it won best horrornovel at the 2009 Aurealis Awards — go figure). And because Red Queen is chiefly told through dialogue I’m guessing it won’t take long before it’s adapted for either the big or small screen very soon. I rather suspect it would make excellent edge-of-your-seat viewing.

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9 thoughts on “‘Red Queen’ by H. M. Brown

  1. There seems to be lots of dystopian fiction out there lately, or else everyone just seems to be reading and writing about it. I may have to see if my library has this. I don’t mind a story that is weak in some places if it’s an edge of your seat type read–sometimes that’s enough depending on my mood.

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  2. I have to admit that any book that has a ‘menacing’ feel about it is one that get my interest fairly swiftly as its such a great word and is a type of book that I would like to check out. Am not sure how I would get on with the characters if they are a bit ropey which I get the feeling they might be. Apart from that this sounds like an interesting read. I will add it to my ‘get at the library’ list so I can try but not buy.

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  3. Despite my pointing out the weaknesses, this is actually a highly readable novel. Its a bit raunchy in places, too, kind of highlighting how all the normal rules (and morals) go out the window when the end of the world is nigh!
    Funny how you mention all the dystopian fiction thats currently out there, as no sooner had I finished this one than I picked up Steve Amsterdams Things We Didnt See Coming, which I also bought in Oz, and its also dystopian! I didnt clock that when I bought it.

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  4. I like reading menacing books too – and this one clearly has a dark tone to it. Not sure youll find it in the library though, as Im pretty sure this has only had an Oz/New Zealand release.

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  5. I just finished this tonight and to be honest I absolutely hated it. There was no character development and what annoyed me the most was the lack of back story. I would have loved to hear more about the so called virus. It was badly written and very slow. The ending was oh so perfect and frankly bland. One of the worst books I’ve read, not to mention the most boring. Really disappointing!

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  6. I agree about the lack of character development but I liked the fact that there was no back story about the virus. You just had to take it on face value that a virus had developed and killed the population off. And, anyway, how could we get a back story when the book is narrated by Shannon, who clearly doesnt understand the extent of what has happened or how? All he knows is that its killed everyone he loves and is highly infectious. He does ask Denny if she knows the full story but even shes vague. I think she mentions something about all the cities being wiped out and the USA and China blaming each other and that there were rumours of a nuclear war, but with no media she didnt know how true this was. So the air of mystery, in my opinion, adds to the story rather than taking away from it.

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  7. Hi guys, Red Queen author here. After receiving praise for this book, I’m starting to get some negative feedback. It unsettles me and makes me strive to be a better writer. Thank you for your comments. Honey

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  8. Thanks for your comment, Honey. I did very much enjoy your book and hope you found my slight criticisms as constructive. Good luck with the book; Im sure it will do very well.

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  9. Hi Kim
    I’ve just finished this for the Australian Women Writers challenge and it’s great to find such varying opinions about it here – even if I am very late to the discussion.
    I love psychological thrillers but, if I’d known Red Queen had a dystopian setting, I might not have picked it up. I’m not much of a fan of the genre usually.
    Having said that, I’m glad I found this book. It took me a couple of goes to get into but, once I was hooked, I had to finish.
    Brown doesn’t shirk at asking some tough questions about human morality, and the gender politics she explores are fascinating.
    Thanks for giving your take on it, and for providing a forum for discussion.

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