I love a good end of the world, and the Afterblight Chronicles series from Abaddon Books have always been reliable. “Blood Ocean” by Weston Ochse is no exception, and despite treading a couple of beaten paths, it proves to be a tight meld of martial arts, character drama and dystopian horror.
The apocalyptic engineering of this novel is fairly generic. A blood-type related plague has wiped out much of the world’s population: a terrible pandemic known as “The Cull”. But it’s the perfectly evoked stage that sets this novel apart from similar premises. It takes place entirely within the rusted hulls and creaking masts of Nomi No Toshi: a floating city of lashed togther boats, tankers and submarines that drifts on the sun-drenched ocean.
Our protagonist is Kavika, a young Hawaiian who longs to earn his traditional warrior stripes and become one of the Pali boys. They rule the skies above the city, swinging monkey-fashion through the rigging and masts above with an ethos of “living large”.
But Nomi No Toshi is a dangerous place, and when one of the boys is apparently harvested for his blood, Kavika sets out to find the killer. This takes him on an adventure through the secret passages, dank hulls, shrines and crow’s nests of the city, and he soon discovers that money talks, fear talks even louder, and power most certainly corrupts.
I loved the setting of this book, and the city is a patchwork of sumptiously realised territories. From the Koreans living in stacked containers aboard an old cargo ship, to the Russians in their subs, life aboard the floating city is one of violence, segregation and suspicion. “Water dogs” rule the sea beneath and control fishing rights, and there are all manner of other scientists, gangs and sinister religions jostling for power and hustling favours.
The characters are also a strength. I cared for Kavika pretty quickly, and enjoyed his point of view. Some authors forget that they’re writing from the perspective of somebody who’s never seen pre-apocalypse times, but it’s subtly acknowledged here in a world where history has become an oral tradition, declining as the older generations die out. The other major players, including a transsexual water dog and a Spanish drug dealer, are all interesting enough to invest, and even Ivanov – a grizzled, alcoholic submarine captain – has an earthy charm.
This is a pacy read with plenty of action: Weston Ochse clearly knows his way around a fight. But the “rip-roaring yarn” feel is deliberately tempered by shocks, and there’s cannibalism, surgery and other bursts of extreme violence to keep the horror machinery oiled. The real dark heart of the book comes from the ruling Corpers, “blood-raping” their subjects and commissioning human vivisection behind the banner of medical research.
This novel isn’t without flaws. Although I generally like the author’s prose, there were occasional times when a scene would describe what I’d already tacitly imagined, which left me getting ahead of the text and waiting for it to catch up. And although most potential cliches are avoided, I did find the whole orphan boy yearning for acceptance rather too familiar. Kavika is real and likeable with his bravery and affecting naivety, and I’d liked to have seen him fundamentally driven by something less textbook.
Another minor gripe is that one element of the vivisection stepped into the realm of SF. As this is a novel otherwise based in concrete science, it demanded a suspension of disbelief I couldn’t give, and dulled a scene that had otherwise very much appealed to my love of the physically macabre.
But despite these grumbles, there is certainly nothing to spoil it. Weston Ochse has a great eye for speculative detail, and neatly presents our inability to rebuild without resorting to tribe and abuse.
Fans of China Mieville may also notice similarities with his sprawling and gorgeous “The Scar” with its floating city, cultural diversity and grotesque body modification, but those heavy sociopolitical depths aren’t attempted here. In fact, ignoring the horror content, this almost feels like a book for younger audiences. That’s not because this is euphemistic or lightweight storytelling. I think it’s partly due to a sense of optimism despite the odds, but mainly because it’s a wild ride driven by a fresh-faced youth that doesn’t contrive to be disturbing or profound, but concentrates on shovelling coal into its furnace.
I enjoyed “Blood Ocean”. Take a tour of the City on the Waves, and give both your inner kid and your inner ghoul something to get their teeth into.