I first became aware of Adam Baker’s writing when searching from some holiday reading. Shopping sites remember our preferences, and sometimes they’re even correct – sometimes – and this time when searching for post apocalyptic pandemic / zombie fiction it presented OUTPOST to me. At the time of purchase there were only a few reviews. Although the reviewers were divided, the positive reviews filled me with hope that I would find a new PONTYPOOL or 28 DAYS LATER between the covers. It wasn’t until I was sequestered in by the pool, in the shade, so pale that I appeared to be in black and white compared to the other resort guests, and opened the cover of the book, that I realised I was in for a skilfully crafted and incredibly addictive joyride.
OUTPOST was an unforgiving tale of Arctic desperation, and ever pervading dread: seen through the eyes of a suicidal overweight priest and the crew of a defunct oil rig; watching the world submit to a global pandemic which turns its victims into a 21st century version of the living dead. Every page was either filled with the slow dread of eventual starvation, submitting to the elements and the bite of the infected, or I was captivated by the survivors’ Maguyver-esque attempts to turn the tables on fate.
I couldn’t wait to tweet about it as soon as I finished it – being a social media-addicted saddo (hence the blog) – and tell people that they need to grab a copy at once. That’s how I eventually came to own a pre-publication copy of JUGGERNAUT; a sort of prequel, if you will. Adam Baker read my tweets. We then corresponded. And when Adam later announced that he had written a new tale, I jumped at the chance to get my greasy paws on it. And I’m glad that I did… (forgive any spoilers!)
JUGGERNAUT opens with us wondering what drove two women to hide in the cab of the titular out of control train, in the middle of the Iraqi desert. It then picks up as we travel back in time to meet Lucy, who leads a ragtag multi racial team of hardened mercenaries, looking to make it out of Iraq with one big score; that is before they might accidentally take a bullet for their uncaring and inept clients. Cue the rescue of Jabril, a prisoner who holds the key to the location of three tonnes of Saddam’s Gold, an ex Marine named Gaunt with a score to settle, a CIA spook named Koell and a tale of a mysterious fallen Russian aircraft hidden near an ancient monument and surrounded by the living dead and you have all the recipes of a real page turner. So the important questions is does the novel deliver? – I think so.
Baker has created a truly cinematic franchise in OUTPOST and JUGGERNAUT. Fans of Zombie cinema and fiction will know how hard it is for people to create a truly memorable fresh take on the walking dead. Perhaps controversially, I think that he’s not only managed to pull it off, he’s made it look easy, and come up with a far more convincing cause than some other classic tales. Not only that, but he’s come up with two totally unique story settings – none of this hiding out in a shopping mall or watching every day cities become overrun by the living dead for his novels. When you add in a dash of fire fights and the threat of the natural elements, you have a very compelling stage.
The only thing that some may criticise in his second novel is that the characters are a little cartoonish in places, but within the bounds of the genre, its fine. It’s a pity, as it meant that like many ensemble films in the same genre, you’re merely waiting for them to die – rather than wondering where they came from or why we should care and it just seems like such a waste; it doesn’t get in the way of knowing what’s going on or spoiling your enjoyment. It just means you don’t really care as much as you could have otherwise – something that I found was handled much more professionally in OUTPOST.
The key to every good genre product is a great villain and this is the only real failing. Koell, the CIA poster boy, certainly provides the face of the human element, with his behind-the-scenes manipulating and ridiculous cliche desire to unleash an uncontrollable virus on mankind for profit. But as he is mainly in the background, sending memos and faxes, apart from two notable scenes, he’s way too passive to be a memorable adversary and although the communiqués seemed convincing, the shadow government was a little too shadowy for my liking. However, I found that Jabril, the ex Saddam henchman, was a brilliant character – one with humility and empathy, yet also a massive dark hole where his soul used to be; a great dichotomy. You find yourself liking him, despite the crimes he’s committed or possibly about to commit. Obviously the virus is the real threat. So don’t worry about whether your characters will be in any real peril. It’s more a question of who’s next (forgetting the two ladies have to survive, because they were on the train. Still with me?) and I think it moves fast enough so that you’ll have little time to wonder about such things, until your second sitting – and, if you like me are truly a fan of such things, you will want to re-read this book!
Other genre elements are explored, such as the moral crux of whether our plucky band will overcome their greed and perform heroically or sell out. Fans of the living dead will enjoy the body count, the descriptions of the living dead coming to life and shambling towards their prey. Fans of action fiction and warfare tales will wallow in the spray of tracer fire, sniper kills and explosions. Fans of memos and conspiracy emails may enjoy those too. ;0)
A comment levelled at both books may be that the prose is sparse, factual and unflowery – but rather than it being a negative – it really works. It doesn’t get in the way. It’s something I wish I could do. If you’ve read a screenplay, his prose feels like a really good screenplay, with nice sharp action beats. It’s matter-of-fact, cold and unpretentious. There’s no time wasted in describing sunsets, not unless you could be describing skulls erupting from a kill shot beneath that sun or the weapon thats performing the shot. I used to love the old SURVIVALIST pulp novels and their equipment-porn descriptions of what weapon each character was using, or the cliche equipment montages in a Rambo film and I felt right at home in Baker’s world. This may be an acquired taste. But It’s one I’ve definitely acquired.
So the big question for JUGGERNAUT is – is it a better story? – In comparison to the first novel I think not – but it’s almost there. The first novel is set in a far more extreme environment. It’s a truly bleak icy tale. Right from the first suicide attempt we know things aren’t going to go well for our characters. And we know in seconds they’ll be dead if exposed to that environment. Whereas, in JUGGERNAUT, the desert is slightly less scary. And because it is focused on a short time period, and right from the start we know who has survived, I find that there is less attention devoted towards building up the atmosphere of an inescapable fate. Yes, our characters could wonder off and die in the desert, or they could get munched – but I’s not like they are unarmed or unskilled at dealing with tough situations. I did find the opening scene in the hospital to be distracting and ruined the surprise of who would make it out alive at the end. And I would have liked my characters to be tested a bit more, less prepared if you will. The times when Lucy remembers key piece of instruction from her drill instructor, although highly educational, felt superfluous and were a little distracting – as well as prevented you from warming to her. Baker has a real gift for conveying knowledge.
His blog is evidence of the depth of his research. Sometimes in this novel, especially the drill instructor parts, some of the detailed explanations barely advance the plot but seemed to be a slightly clunky way of imparting that knowledge – but to me it came across as unbridled enthusiasm for the subject matter, rather than a patronising device. They’re kind of like the expositional pieces in genre films – to tie up the loose ends of the plot and keep things moving, which often serve as distractors that pull you out of that suspension of disbelief, rather than allow you to remain lost in the plot, and make you a bit more self aware than usual. I definitely want to read more of his work and think that less exposition and more peril is the sure key to his success.
Please forgive my critique. Don’t think that me reading this novel was anything but pleasurable. It really made my long train journeys and travelling around the Christmas period fly by. I was utterly transported into Baker’s brain vision as soon as I opened the cover and loved every minute of it. I can do nothing but recommend his books and I can’t wait until Hollywood gets wise to the potential of his living dead franchise. It is crying out for a big budget tentpole movie treatment. And I would queue up to watch such a film over and over again. Just like OUTPOST, JUGGERNAUT is survival horror at its best. It’s definitely worth your time and money. Even though I received a free copy, I’ve re-read it three times and gone back to purchase and re-read OUTPOST again. I get more out of each reading. I hope that you too come to enjoy his novels.
Find JUGGERNAUT on Amazon (I don’t get any money from this referral)
Find OUTPOST on Amazon