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.