Long seen though they’ve been as the preserve of the precocious, or the last hope of the lonely, imaginary friends are ten-a-penny in Defender.
G. X. Todd’s remarkably readable dystopian debut posits a planet Earth ravaged by unfathomable cataclysm. On the one hand, survivors are scant; on the other, theories about how it happened aren’t. “To get it over and done with, he quickly ticked off the points on his fingers as he listed them. ‘Biological attack, poisoning, after-effects of dementia vaccines, aliens, subliminal and/or psychological warfare, chemical agents in the water supply, the mystical forces of sea tides and the moon. And, my personal favourite, some kind of Rapture-type event.'”
But the cause of this apocalypse isn’t the point of Todd’s text—the first of four in a series starting here. Instead, she’s interested in the effect: namely the voices people started hearing in their heads. Defender‘s protagonist Pilgrim has one; he calls it, of all things, Voice. That said, he’s a rarity these days, because most of the folks who ended up with imaginary friends are dead.
Whether they’re symptomatic of a mass auditory hallucination or something more… well. “That’s the million-dollar question,” one Todd isn’t inclined to answer—at least, not in this novel—but it’s safe today to say that these imaginary friends mightn’t be entirely made up. Nor, indeed, are they terribly friendly. Many pushed the people who heard them into murder and suicide, hence the paltry population of Defender‘s North America. Pilgrim, for his part, has come to something of an understanding with the who-knows-what he hosts:
Any sense of peace he ever hoped to achieve would only be an illusion, for Voice was always with him and always would be. He was demon and angel and conscience wrapped up in one, and there was no escaping him.
To wit, when Voice urges Pilgrim to offer the girl selling lemonade from a stand by the side of the road a ride, it’s easier for our hero to hear her out than to start a subconscious squabble there’d be no stopping.
Lacey seems harmless enough in any event. Sixteen years old, she’s been raised in blissful ignorance in a farm off the beaten track by her Gran, but now that her Gran is gone, the farm has fallen fallow, and she knows she needs to move on. What she wants is to get to her sister’s in Vicksburg. It’s been years since they saw one another, but Lacey believes her sister is a survivor; that together, they could turn their little lives into something worthwhile.
Taking on a passenger goes against everything that’s kept Pilgrim alive—if not well—since everything went to hell, but for some mysterious reason, Voice won’t take no for an answer, so Lacey packs a rucksack, sit in the pillion position, and off they pop.
That’s how the adventures of Lacey and Pilgrim begin—and that might well be how they end as well, because unbeknownst to them, they’re on a collision course with a monster of a man called Charles Dumont: a creepy country bumpkin who’s tasked his gun-toting gang to round up any and all of the survivors they come across—especially those that have been “blessed” with imaginary friends.
A little clever and a lot cruel, Dumont, with “his drawl slow and considered,” is a relatively effective bad guy, and a fine first foil for Lacey and Pilgrim, but he’s a far cry, I’m afraid, from the seemingly fearsome Flitting Man our droll defender and the green teen he’s gone and gotten involved with keep hearing about.
This, I think, speaks to Todd’s odd priorities: she’s more concerned with setting up a series than in satisfying this first book’s readers. Defender posits a lot of questions—about what the voices want, about the cause of the apocalypse, about what makes Lacey so special—and answers nearly none. Meanwhile, it makes a real meal of a couple of characters—not just the aforementioned Flitting fella—who have no real role in the whole.
And initially, the few who do feel awfully familiar, as if pilfered from the apocalyptic fiction playbook. Pilgrim is an incredibly capable hard-ass with a heart of gold; Lacey is a spirited innocent who’s going to have to learn some hellish lessons if she plans on lasting. “She looked at him as if he […] could magic all the bad stuff out of the world.” He looks at her as if she were an accident waiting to happen.
Happily, the state of play between them changes. Indeed, before Defender‘s done and dusted, Pilgrim and Lacey have had a dramatic impact on one another:
She had been the first living human he had willingly made physical contact with for 151 straight days, and Voice had warned him not to get used to her presence. Now he feared he was more than used to it: he found, increasingly, that he didn’t want to live without it.
They might start out as individual archetypes, but by dint of their development as a duo, Pilgrim and Lacey became characters I cared quite a bit about over the course of Todd’s first novel. The wasted world never came alive for me in that fashion, alas; nor the episodic plot, which shuffles along like a mid-season stretch of The Walking Dead.
In truth, Defender doesn’t do much of anything new, but I will say that what it does, it does with confidence—charisma, come to that. It has its issues, such that if a more seasoned author were behind the wheel, I might have hit the handbrake, but for a debut, it’s damned impressive. A particular highlight is Todd’s voice, which is generous and unaffected in the same way Stephen King’s is. He’s had fifty-odd novels to find it, mind, and you get the sense that G. X. Todd is just getting started.
Defender is available in the U.K. from Headline.
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 lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.