Apocalypse Alley by Don Allmon
Published by: Riptide
Release date: February 26, 2018
Order at: Publisher
Reviewed by: Alex & Edwin
What to Expect: Death Race 2000 meets Mad Max in The Matrix. Featuring a hacker, a supersoldier with side servings of the Daddiest orc in history and a terrifying cyborg assassin.
Home from a six-month assignment to war-torn East Asia, genetically engineered supersoldier Noah “Comet” Wu just wants to kick back, share a beer, and talk shit with his best friend, JT. But JT’s home has been shot up like a war zone, and his friend has gone missing.
Comet’s only lead is a smart-mouthed criminal he finds amid the mess. His name’s Buzz Howdy. He’s a con man and a hacker and deserves to be in jail. Or in handcuffs, at least. The only thing the two have in common is JT. Unless you count the steamy glances they’re sneaking at one another. They have those in common too. But that just makes Comet all the more wary.
Despite their mutual distrust, they’ll have to work together to rescue JT before a cyborg assassin gets to him first. Racing down a miserable stretch of road called Apocalypse Alley, they must dodge radioactive spiders, a killer Buick, and rampaging cannibals. They also try to dodge each other. That last bit doesn’t work out so well.
A sign of how much we both enjoyed the book is that we rushed to the nearest messenger program after finishing it to discuss it. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation. The reactions are real. The long discursive digressions about the nature of reality are real. The verdict is final. Some emojis may have been removed. This is buddy review.
Edwin: So we both really loved the first book of this series, The Glamour Thieves, right?
Alex: Yup. Loved. Unequivocally.
Edwin: In fact, it was one of my favourite books of last year. Apocalypse Alley is obvious the same sort of aesthetic, but the whole thing is played for laughs a bit more. And I think it’s really effective. Like a day-glo 80s that never existed. If book 1 was Mad Max, this one was Beyond Thunderdome; just lacking a Tina Turner cameo! More than this, I think the style of worldbuilding was incredible. So, not all great art is photorealistic, right? A sketch of a few strokes can be as evocative as hyperrealistic landscapes or portraits. This is the sketch school of worldbuilding. The gestures Allmon makes, the whole aesthetic of the thing, tell you how the world feels so completely without ever being given a lot of details about the world.
Alex: Missing a Tina Turner cameo? Wait, are you…ooooh…aaaand now I’m picturing her as the book two baddie, Valentine. But back to your point. Yes. Allmon is really very clever in the way he writes as if to assume you’re in on the joke. And in the building up of it. Not only is it clever but it’s a very trusting way to write.I think it means a lot about who he is as an author that he assumes he has credible, clever readers. Which he has, obviously.
Edwin: At the same time, I think this may mean the book *really* doesn’t work for some people? If you don’t vibe with the sense of humour, the retro-futurism, and the style of worldbuilding, I think this could be quite inaccessible.
Alex: Inaccessible? Dunno. To your point–responses I’ve received from my waxing lyrical on the topic of sexy orcs, is evidence the subject matter isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Then again, the folks I know who have sipped this particular tea have been surprised by their own enjoyment of it. Take me, for example…I’m not the SFF reader you are (though I do enjoy it). I’ve never played an RPG online or otherwise. I don’t play video games. I’m not “in the know” about these things but this is fun!. More than that, between the fast pace, the character building, the humor, and the tension of a world that is both gritty and lush, I find this series both accessible and welcoming. When I say this, I mean, for beyond this book. It might sound weird but I’ve always found the gamers pretty intimidating. Maybe it’s the queer aspect of this work but after reading this series, I’m left feeling like my barriers to a world previously inaccessible to me (RPG’s, sims, video games) have been lowered.
Edwin: Do you think that fast pace can be a problem, though? We just jump right in where the previous book ended, with Comet arriving at JT’s car yard and finding it trashed, and Dante missing. There’s no easing you in.
Alex: Funny you should say that because there was no easing into The Glamour Thieves. I usually like to be led gently through a new world, introduced to characters in some gentle, civilized manner. That did not happen here. This shouldn’t work but it does. From start to finish, it is all action. There is no time for reflection. There is little bother with exposition. It is a Disneyland ride. No…back-to-back rides with no time to catch your breath. But because these novels are fairly short, it really works. Just don’t think about the fact that so much happens in so little time and that Buzz is neither an orc, an elf, or even an enhanced human; he’s a hacker in a regular human body. On that point, my suspension of disbelief did get stretched but, to be honest, I hardly minded. And speaking of the orc-human-elf continuum, I found the ongoing narrative about identity–and crafted identity–fascinating.
Edwin: I think part of that is down to the characterisation? We get such efficient portrayals of Comet, Buzz, and the background characters that we don’t quite notice being dropped into the narrative cold. We learn about Buzz’s past with his 3djinn hacker crowd, Comet’s history as, essentially, a mystic, who ends up a mercenary, and all their friends and associated on the fly, as the world whizzes past Comet’s bike. Again, the skill involved here is remarkable. I think even if it doesn’t quite work for you, the craft is worthy of respect.
Alex: And that’s another piece of this I find so inspiring. On the one hand, these characters are fully fleshed out. On the other hand, just about every character is a fabrication of themselves. Only Austin goes by his own name. Comet is Noah. JT is now Jason. Even Buzz, whom I suspect had a different birth name becomes Shaggy. It so closely resembles my own queer experience in choosing a name that matches my identity. It’s a powerful way to become yourself. But in this case, the identities are created by others. “Shaggy” comes from Comet. “Jason” comes from Buzz. “Buzz” may very well come from 3djinn. And in this world where each humanoid had been human less than fifty years prior, it’s an interesting question on how our identities–considered indisputable and inherent by many–are shaped by others. Ultimately, this is on the border of crack fiction but the ideas resonate with me.
Edwin: Right? This could so easily have all gone wrong, but it stays just the right side of silly. And, in fact, as well as the fun, I liked how our cast gets us to reflect on what a fundamentally dangerous & not decent world does to fundamentally decent people. All of our heroes in both Blue Unicorn books – Buzz, Comet, JT, Austin have damage, all are shown to have pretty good motivations, but their environment has made them unwilling or unable to show it except in contingent ways. We see this in the way Buzz feels able to show affection to Comet, and also in the deeply contingent relationship between Comet and Duke.
Alex: Wasn’t that also the path taken by JT and Austin? That doesn’t make any of their emotions less relevant. And when they do show up for each other, it’s unquestioning. That’s where this book starts. Comet shows up to meet his best friend Jason (JT) only to find his place shot up. No question Comet is coming after him. In parallel, there is no question Buzz is on the same path. Just to make it more complex, Duke backing them both but in a way that neither particularly feels as if doing so is their choice any longer. And, oh man…Duke. For a tough guy, his love for Comet was overwhelming. I mean, he scared me. I was intimidated, no doubt. But wow. Duke. What an antihero. At the time I was reading their backstory, I was struck by the choices he made in rebuilding Comet — and that one way he did so, which was ultimately for Comet’s pleasure.
Edwin: But. But. *Comet* didn’t see it that way. He saw Duke as playing god with his body. Which it also was.
Alex: Point taken. Still–not choices I’d expect a mob king to make.
Edwin: Can we talk a bit about Duke? He doesn’t have that much time on screen, but goddamn does he pretty much steal the show. Just exudes danger. I don’t know if I’d call him a good man, but neither is he a bad one. Loyal to his people, but demanding of them, and incredibly dangerous to those who threaten he and his. Reminds me quite a lot of Jeff Mann’s fantastic leather daddy vampire Derek Maclaine, actually (if you haven’t read Desire & Devour and Insatiable you really should). Righteous gay rage and lust personified.
Alex: Sigh. My TBR just got longer. Alas, back to Duke. [Deletes several paragraphs of our discussion in which we layout serious Duke fanfiction.] I would very much welcome his epic novel. Did you notice how his entrance coincided with a world in which digital simulation was the norm? This wove throughout this book. We get Allmon’s exploration of the benefits of digital communications. We see characters replaying a ‘scene’ that already happened–it gets repeated over and over, agonized over, reinterpreted. Isn’t this the new paradox? Information comes at lighting speed but with this advancement of technology, we have time to process and edit almost instantaneously too, which gives more time for a considered, polished response or even. There’s at least one scene that outright re-invented reality in the form of extensive edits, cosplay, or substituting an honest, emotional response to a message with self-created porn (there was a motorcycle involved and it was awesome). In person, it’s very difficult to fake a response but, in a digital world? The lure to manipulate the response to a different end proves difficult, to pass up. This happens all the time in social media. What I found so charming in this case is the way Allmon played it, these identities are fictions within fictions but there even in that, they remain authentic.
Edwin: Another aspect of this I thought was really effective was the insertion of projections onto real life seamlessly. There are a couple of scenes in the book where we don’t know at least half the people in the room are actually digital projections everyone is seeing in their neural hardware.
Alex: It’s also great how the hacktivists Buzz runs with use that malleability of reality to try to influence Buzz to act in particular ways, even though he’s one of them.
Edwin: I really like that, too. Kind of a callback to WikiLeaks: leaking isn’t just about justice and speaking truth to power, it’s telling a particular story the leaker (and possibly the original source, too) wants to be told.
Alex: Yes. But I like how that point wasn’t crammed in either. You get that notion out of the narrative without it being forced.
Edwin: If there’s an overriding theme to the book I think it’s one of how reality is entirely contingent on perception. Apocalypse Alley is largely about perception and how different actions look depending on context.That’s stated explicitly in a couple of places, but it also runs thematically throughout the book.
Alex: It definitely plays a major role in the development of Buzz and Comet’s relationship. If they weren’t forced together, if they didn’t have to deal with the grim reality of being hunted, they would not have sought each other out. When contemplating the what comes next, there is real consideration of whether they exist together in the real world or how it might work with some virtual reality. The latter isn’t outright negated but because Comet is enhanced and Buzz practically lives in an alternate reality, their future together is demonstrated by how each responds to that question: what is real?
Edwin: So…negatives? Obviously, we both really liked the book, but it isn’t perfect. I do think the pace was a bit unrelenting to the point you didn’t have time to stop and think. And if I was churlish, this is also getting really close to Shadowrun in its world-building (though I like Shadowrun, and I loved the 90s Shadowrun books, so I don’t have a huge problem with that).
Alex: I didn’t mind the pace. In fact, I liked it. That said, it wouldn’t have worked in a larger novel nor was it believable the characters could keep up that pace given the timeline. Also, Dante Riggs was a non-character. She has the feel of an anti-hero but in her baby teen state, she is neither interesting enough nor enough of a brat, to hook me. More seriously, the climactic action was rushed and disappointingly out of proportion given the badassness of evil cyborg assassin, Valentine, and her fleet of murder cars Valentine.
Edwin: Yes, the miniboss was harder than the boss! Though I believe the disappointing boss just ran off to another castle, rather than be defeated (i.e., is going to be the main antagonist for book 3). All of this is quibbling, though. Ultimately I had masses of fun with this book. I want more people to read this. It’s dirty & profane & anarchic & loving and revels in its own silliness.
Alex: Yes — all of this. Apocalypse Alley is so silly, so fun. So whimsical and clever. So dirty and grimy and so very loving. For those, like me, who aren’t gamers, aren’t into cosplay, who wouldn’t have thought the two words sexy orcs belonged together, who might read the blurb, consider the genre, and think this book might not be for you…consider picking it up anyway. This one might surprise you.
Edwin gets grumpy if his SF/F reading doesn’t feature happy queer main characters. Aside from that, he reads and writes for a living (though not fiction), so of course his hobby is reading, and now writing about what he reads. Why do anything else?
Connect with Edwin on Twitter: @gaybookgeek
Alex claims to read more than any normal, healthy adult should though the rest of the Binge on Books team would beg to differ. You can read all of his reviews here.
Connect with Alex on Twitter: @Alex_deMorra