The antidote to Harry Potter is back in Charlie Human’s bawdy new novel: a lively elaboration of the mad as pants brand of South African urban fantasy advanced in Apocalypse Now Now which, whilst thrilling, makes some of the same mistakes its predecessor did.
Kill Baxter kicks off a matter of months on from the apocalyptic conclusion of Human’s debut. Our sixteen year old protagonist may have saved the world, however his heroics haven’t made a lick of a difference to his unlikely life.
By resolving to be a better person, Baxter tries to take matters into his own hands, but it isn’t easy to be decent when you’re rolling with Ronin:
“You cured yet? I could wait while you knock one out in the bushes.”
“Thanks, but I’m OK,” I say with a sarcastic smile. “Besides, nobody is apparently ever cured of addiction. Only in remission.”
The bounty hunter has become a closer friend than I could ever have anticipated. Thanks largely to the fact that he helped me rescue Esme. He’s the only one that I can really talk to about all the strange creeping, crawling, screeching, roaring things that cling to Cape Town’s underbelly. Plus he always has drugs and alcohol.
Luckily, drugs and alcohol aren’t Baxter’s major malfunction. Instead, he’s hoping to be rid of his reliance on lies and the like. Fat chance of that, though.
In short order he’s shipped off to Hexpoort, a Hogwarts of sorts where his more manipulative instincts may be the only defence Baxter has against the dark arts practiced in these parts, for from the first the school’s resident chosen one—who comes complete with “a crescent-moon scar beneath his left eye”—makes Baxter’s existence miserable, meanwhile the teachers he meets are hardly more motivational. This from the Red Witch:
“The only thing that gives us the edge, that little bit extra that keeps us from being splattered all over the streets, is what you’ll learn here. This is dirty magic, gutter magic, street-fighting magic. We don’t rest on ceremony. Find out what works and use it. I don’t care if you pray to Darth Vader and masturbate to torture porn to charge your sigils. If you cut yourself and smoke crystal meth to get in the mood for rituals. We’re understaffed, underpaid and unimpressed by your fledgling abilities. In parts of this country people are stoned to death and necklaced for witchcraft. Nobody cares if you use magic outside of the confines of these walls. If you fuck up, you’re dead. So don’t fuck up.”
Easier said than done for some.
Rather ironically, this section of Kill Baxter scratches much the same itch the Harry Potter books did, albeit with a confluence of cruelty more representative of the real world than Rowling’s happy fantasy. Alas, as he abandoned the Spider’s hijinks at Westridge High in Apocalypse Now Now, Human turns his back on Baxter’s time at Hexpoort too soon in its successor.
When the Muti Man comes a-calling, that’s that. The whole school, up to and including its newest students, is mobilised to beat back his attack, which take the shape of a magical plague on the Western Cape:
Every city has a common headspace, a sum total of all the thoughts, feelings and emotions of a group of people. This commonality has an effect of every individual member; think of it like psychic weather. […] An egregore is a conscious influencing of this group mind through magical means, and it can have disasterous results. Stock-market crashes, riots, massacres; through history egregores have been used to create terrible, unstoppable chain reactions in groups of people.
It’s frustrating to see the several nits I picked in my review of Apocalypse Now Now rear their ugly heads again here. That said, both issues—which is to say the clumsy way essential information is conveyed and the routine exclusion of several aspects of the narrative—are blessedly less evident than they were, and everything Human’s debut did well, Kill Baxter does better.
It’s funnier, for one, as if the author’s sense of humour has been untethered by the success it’s met with, and the setting, again, is superlative—especially Hexpoort: a pentacle-shaped school which “squats against brown canyon walls […] surrounded by a perimeter of electric fencing and razor wire.” A far cry from Hogwarts, huh?
Furthermore, the way in which South African folklore figures into the fiction is fantastic—the dreamwalking bits are abundantly brilliant—and Kill Baxter is a markedly more brutal book than Human’s debut too, particularly as regards its central character’s array of relationships. Without giving the game away, suffice it to say his trials take a toll on his rapport with Ronin, his brother Rafe, and Esme, the love of his life, alike—an appropriate reminder, given the defeated tone of the text, that no good deed goes unpunished.
Though its strengths are subverted by some of the same weaknesses which made a mixed bag of Apocalypse Now Now, Kill Baxter, at the last, is more than a match for Charlie Human’s addictive debut. This, then, is urban fantasy on magical meth. You will want more. And you’ll get it, I expect.
Kill Baxter is available now in the UK and publishes worldwide August 26th from Century.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.