LONDON, 2012: It arrives and with that the world is changed into an unending graveyard littered with the bones, wreckage, and memories of a dead past, gone forever.
LONDON, 2032: Twenty years later, out of the ashes, a new world begins to rise, a place ruled by both loyalty and fear, and where the quest to be the first to regain lost knowledge is an ongoing battle for power. A place where laws are made and enforced by roving gangs—the Bloomsbury Boys, the Gardners, the Red Lady’s Gang—who rule the streets and will do anything to protect their own.
THE FOUR: Zane, Titus, Erin, Eve. Living in this new world, they discover that they have abilities never before seen. And little do they know that as they search post-apocalyptic London for Titus’ kidnapped sister that they’ll uncover the secret of It, and bring about a reckoning with the forces that almost destroyed all of humanity.
20 Years Later is a book that I was aware of long before it was picked up by fledgling US publisher Dystopia Press. The publishers very kindly sent me a copy to review many months ago, but even before then I already knew a great deal about the story as Emma Newman, the author of 20 Years Later, had been podcasting the story through her website for some time. Three quarters of the way through doing this she got that publishing deal for the book, but Dystopia Press allowed her to continue hosting the podcasts on her website here. I wrote this review some time ago, as 20 Years Later was originally scheduled for a July release here in the UK, but this was then postponed, and then postponed again, and so I held off publishing my review. However, on Sunday I was informed by the author that the book is now officially published in the UK today. Hurrah!
I have mentioned on The Book Zone previously that post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories seem to be all the rage in YA literature at the moment, although the genre is one that I only tend to dip in and out of. Focusing more on the post-apocalyptic rather than dystopian side of things, examples that spring to mind are Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin (great zombie story) and Moira Young's Blood Red Road (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome for the new millennium). Whilst I would suggest that 20 Years Later is not as polished as either of these two, it is still a hugely enjoyable read. This story refreshingly does not include any zombies, neither is it like Mad Max, and best of all, in comparison to the majority of post-apocalyptic stories published this year, it is not set in the USA, but in London.
The story starts off with a prologue, narrated by an as yet unnamed person. I'm not a big fan of prologues in post-apocalyptic stories, as they are sometimes used to give the reader a history of whichever apocalypse has occurred, be it mass-zombification of a population, nuclear war, climate change, etc. The prologue is written as if it were the introduction to a book, long lost and finally discovered many years later, with the narrator begging the reader to read on, rather than burn the book for a few more minutes of heat. Whilst it is used to divulge a little information, to set the scene, it does not give us any information regarding the nature of the apocalypse (referred to as It), but a description of London being a 'dusty, ghost-filled monument to the dead' with bone-littered streets, leaves us with no doubt at all that 'It' was pretty nasty indeed.
The London of 2032 is a pretty nasty place indeed. Areas have been taken over by various gangs, and these gangs are happy to fight to the death in order to prevent other encroaching on their territory. We have the Bloomsbury Boys, the Gardeners and the most organised and strongest group, The Red Lady's Gang. Main character Zane lives with his mother Miri in Bloomsbury. The pair are tolerated by the gang of boys that control that part of London as his Zane's mum has often been their first port of call when injured as a result of a fight with another gang. Miri has a small house, with a tidy garden, different to most of the overgrown areas in the city. Living so close to the Bloomsbury Boys is not easy for Zane; he wants to fit in with the crowd, but also feels obliged to follow the rules that his mother has laid down for him.
Zane's world is shaken to the core by several events near the beginning of the story. First off, he and his friend Dev observe a mysterious giant stalking the corridors of a long-abandoned hospital, an event that stirs up a good deal of speculation amongst the rest of the gang. Soon afterwards a small boy, dressed only in pyjamas, is discovered on the fringe of Russell Square, central in the Boys' territory. As soon as the boy sees Zane's face he becomes completely terrifed, yet Zane has never seen him before in his life. So begins a tale that sees Zane having to grow very quickly, as he comes under the influence of the Red Lady, discovers he has a strange power, and meets Erin and Titus, two other very special young people, who join him in his quest to discover what the giant is doing, and where Titus' kidnapped sister has been taken.
One of the things I really liked about 20 Years Later was main character Zane. In may post-apocalyptic stories we are given characters who are wise beyond their years, their personalities hardened by the difficult lives they have had to lead in order to survive. Zane is very different to these characters - he is one of life's innocents, and has a naivety rarely seen in books of this genre. If he had been a fully paid up member of a gang this would not have been at all believable, but unlike the other children in the book he has been brought up within the protective sphere of his mother's influence, having to work the garden and follow sensible rules. She has shielded him from the realities that have faced everyone else, and as such he is not as well equipped as others when it comes to survival. He therefore has to grow a great deal as the story progresses.
One of the things I find quite hard to believe in many post-apocalyptic stories with young characters is how every one of them so quickly acclimatise to their new situation, fast becoming great survivalists. As someone who works with children I know that this simply would not be the case - a small number might, but many would give up as soon as things got too tricky for them. Having a character who is not worldy-wise and a ready killer is, for me, a breath of fresh air in this genre. Zane has also had the finer details of the nature of 'It' kept from him; in fact, none of the Boys seem aware of the nature of the apocalypse that affected their world, and as readers we are kept guessing until very near the end of the story. Again, I quite liked this as it kept the story feeling fresh and different to many others that deal with similar themes.
As I said before, 20 Years Later does not seem as polished as other big name books in this genre. This is not the fault of the author, who I feel has created a well-paced, exciting story. The blame needs to be laid on the head of the publisher, but not too heavily. Like all small press publishers, Dystopia Press will have limited resources and less time to put into the editing process, and I think this book would have benefited from the more rigorous editing process it would have received in the hands of one of the major publishers.
20 Years Later is the first book in a planned trilogy, and as such there are many loose ends left untied come the final page. E.J Newman does end the story in a satisfactory manner, without leaving us dangling on a nasty cliffhanger, but leaves us with plenty to look forward to in future instalments. Flaws aside, this is a hugely enjoyable read and I will definitely be wanting to follow the rest of the story.
My thanks go to the good people at Dystopia Press for sending me a copy to review.