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Friday Five: 5 (More) Books that Read Like Games

Review Round-up: Apocalypse Now, Now and No Return

Two new fantasy debuts, each doing interesting - one could say bonkers - things: Zachary Jernigan's No Return and Charlie Human's Apocalypse Now Now.

No ReturnZachary Jernigan's No Return (2013) is weird. No, make that Weird. Three different warriors travel the length and breadth of a world to fight in a prestigious (and lethal) tournament. There's a background of political, racial and religious unrest, with the winner in a position to influence hundreds of thousands of bloodthirsty fans. Meanwhile, Adrash, the world's one and only god, hovers in orbit, surrounded by his shiny satellites. He's been known to fling them down to the surface to punish humanity in the past, which is an extreme, if effective, way of enforcing the faith.

Certain cultures send astronaut-wizards into orbit to study him, because... well, why not? The major religious divisions, by the way, aren't about accepting the existence of Adrash, but choosing how to respond to him: to fear him or to love him, and if the latter, to do so by proving oneself strong or humble. It is a bit confusing, but Mr. Jernigan makes it all fairly clear, and establishes credible religious schisms in a world where God is a known and definable quality.

Everything is underpinned by a seriously macabre magical system (hint: if it is sticky or dead, it is probably powerful) and a lot of delightfully hand-wavey "this is just how it is" non-expository world-building. There's a lot thrown into these pages. No Return is filled with alienness and inexplicable things, and Mr. Jernigan never goes out of his way to soften the blow with more than the bare minimum of explanation. The result is a captivating universe - not only one that could spawn endless books of RPG fluff, but also a setting that serves as an excellent stage for discussions of faith, fervour and divinity.

No Return has six point of view characters: three potential gladiators, two Eldermen 'outbound mages' and Adrash himself. I personally found it hard to connect with any one of them. They're certainly interesting: Jernigan gives them all their own distinctive personalities and individual conflicts, as well as equal amounts of agency and "screen time". But, over and above that, none of them have any warmth. Perhaps it is just a matter of (limited) time and space, but the characters' motivations are largely spelled out for us: He is undergoing a crisis of faith. She is now in love. He wants to be free. We never decipher the characters for ourselves, and, despite being told how intensely they're feeling things, it all still feels extremely mechanical. 

Still - a fascinating world, nicely-executed plot (although, be warned, there is a bit of a cliff-hanger) and a wonderfully squishy and twisted aesthetic. No Return is an excellent fit for readers of Mark Charan Newton's Legend of the Red Sun series or those who enjoy the fantasies of M. John Harrison, Gene Wolfe or Jack Vance. Interestingly, my main criticism of those series as well is in the remoteness of the characters; quite possibly there's something about deliberately disconcerting settings that makes the narrators more distant as well. I'll be following Mr. Jernigan's series closely, and I hope that, now that the foundation is in place, future volumes will give the characters more chance to shine.

(Also, that cover! I read this as an ebook and didn't see it until now. I'm afraid that No Return is another one of those books - like Sam Sykes' Tome of the Undergates - which takes an element of the text literally, and completely fails to relate to the book's aesthetic or themes. I mean, yes, there was FACEPUNCHING in this book, but to say No Return is book about FACEPUNCHING is to say Dune is a book about knife fights.)

Human-ApocalypseNowNowMeanwhile, beyond the w(/W)eird and into the outright bonkers - Apocalypse Now Now (2013) by Charlie Human is pure, unbridled joy. Baxter Zevcenko is the kingpin of his high school. His group of merciless misfits deal outrĂ© pornography. Thanks to Baxter's Machiavellian ploys, they keep the larger and better armed gangs at bay and turn a tidy profit. Baxter likes his creepy life. He's got a little brother to torment, a thriving (if seedy) industry, a foxy goth girlfriend with whom to canoodle and a thousand plans bouncing around in his head. 

When a serial killer kidnaps Esme (foxy goth girlfriend), Baxter's delicate balance of cold-hearted priorities topples to the ground. He wants to be the Richelieu of high school gangland, but he also wants his snuggle-bunny. Does Baxter break his own cardinal rule and get involved? Interestingly, Baxter's got more in his head than just plans - there are a few voices up there as well, and they're all chiming in with opinions about what he should do next.

And what does he do next? On one hand, Apocalypse Now Now has your typical urban fantasy plot structure. Baxter is a) something special, b) romantically entangled and c) shocked to discover a world of supernatural creatures that are d) at war. You know the drill. On the other hand, absolutely none of it is paint by numbers. Yes, Baxter's something special, but it is less "child of prophecy" than "cosmic mish-mash". His romantic entanglement doesn't follow the normal route either, and, arguably, the book's emotional hook is less about his relationship with Esme than the larger question of his relationship with himself. Does Baxter want to be warm or cold (good and evil go flying out the window very, very rapidly in this book)? And as for c (and d), the supernatural creatures are plucked from African, European and pop cultural mythologies, and thoroughly rebuilt according to the author's mind-boggling specifications. Zombifying spiders, sex sprites, war dwarves, mollusc mecha... all kind of familiar, but with a unique twist. 

The result is a fever dream of an urban fantasy, something where everything's been flung against the wall and, against all odds, it sticks. In hindsight, this is because Apocalypse Now Now has - rather shocking - depth. While reading it, my first impressions were MANTISGOD FTW and ZOMG SHOTGUNHAZCOOLNAME. And certainly, Mr. Human has built a ridiculously infectious world: a combination of arcade game and Adult Swim series. It is hard not to be swept up by the joy of it all; there's an energy that stems from all of these magnificently wacky ideas achieving fusion on the page. But, as memorable as all the craziness is, it's not what makes Apocalypse Now Now work: Baxter does.

Apocalypse Now Now's protagonist is me - and I suspect, most of us - at age 16. He's smug, convinced he's smarter than everyone around him, a misfit clinging to a close group of friends, ambitious, a schemer, still trying to figure out the difference between right and wrong, passionate about trivia and plagued by adolescence, puppy love, the unreasonable demands of family and a world that doesn't understand him or his brilliance. The fact that he's a "he" is also irrelevant, Baxter is the teenage everygeek, regardless of gender. He's a mixture of self-love and self-hate, and he's trying his awkward best to figure out who (and how) he'll be as an adult.

It is tough to refer to any book featuring Tokoloshe porn as "poignant", but Apocalypse Now Now has an emotional underpinning to it that's possibly even more special than its pan-dimensional octopus fights. That said, it also has pan-dimensional octopus fights, and they're every bit as awesome as you might think they are. Unbridled, unhinged joy and a bit of thoughtful characterisation? Apocalypse Now Now may truly signify the end of days.

(For a little more insight into Apocalypse Now Now and its cover[s], check out our interview with Joey Hi-Fi.)