Thursday 5 September 2013

Book Review | Your Brother's Blood by David Towsey

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Thomas is thirty-two. He comes from the small town of Barkley. He has a wife there, Sarah, and a child, Mary; good solid names from the Good Book. And he is on his way home from the war, where he has been serving as a conscripted soldier. 

Thomas is also dead - he is one of the Walkin'. 

And Barkley does not suffer the wicked to live.


To believe in something, utterly and unconditionally, even or especially when everything else we understand goes against it, is, I think, a powerful thing.

I often wish I had it in me, that capacity. But a leap is needed — a leap of faith into the great unknown — and I... I like to know where I'm going well before I get there.

The appeal, however, is clear, even to me. Belief begets a sense of purpose in a world that often strikes this critic as poorly plotted. Belief reveals meaning in the seemingly meaningless. Belief changes us; rearranges us; makes us more, ultimately, than we were, or would have been. But with great power comes great responsibility — as a great man mooted a great many years ago — and inasmuch as faith can be freeing, when wielded without kindness or compassion it can, of course, be a weapon as well.

In case you were wondering why I'm banging on about the sensitive subjects above: blame David Towsey's daring debut. Faith is the fire at the beating heart of Your Brother's Blood. It's what sets the small town of Barkley apart in a world that's fallen to fear and loathing. It's what keeps its people decent, centuries on from the dawn of the Walkin'...
Debate continues over the cause of Automated Man's fall from scientific grace. War would be an obvious cause. Regardless of man's level of sophistication, time has proven him to be an aggressive creature. We can only imagine what kind of weapons would have been at his disposal. 
Perhaps man outgrew this world and journeyed to the star? Leaving nothing but scraps — both human and otherwise — behind. Abandoned by science, those remaining lived as best they could, resulting in the societies of today. A neat [...] theory. 
Yet, despite finding no obvious flaw in this hypothesis, my personal preference leans towards another explanation: the resources that fuelled man's domination ran out. 
For all his subtleties, he was finite. It is the pattern of humanity: like the moon, their influence waxes and wanes. Mechaniks, magic, the power to fly, are all hollow trinkets; nothing can escape the pattern. (
In Your Brother's Blood, humanity as you and I understand it is gone, and all but forgotten. Yet the world still turns — and there are still people peppered upon it, albeit not in such numbers. The last of us, for they are thus, have had to go back to basics. The bare necessities are they need, really: food, friendship, protection from the elements, a few rudimentary tools.

And faith. In Barkley especially — an insular community modelled after a man who believed the Walkin' were symptomatic of a second Fall — faith is pervasive. Everyone, but everyone, attends sermons on the Sabbath, to hear Pastor Gray preach about the evils of these others: a belief shared by many beyond Barkley. Here, however, the flock is taught to tar the first-born with the same destructive brush: "The gates of heaven are closed to the kin of those damned souls. They are left to walk the earth; abominations; fouls creatures of the night. Twisted husks: they fester instead of finding eternal joy." (p.7)

In recent years, this cruel and unusual commandment has been enough to keep the Walkin' from coming back to Barkley, yet at the outset of Your Brother's Blood, one man does exactly that. Poor Jared Peekman is promptly burned to death — again — as a mob bays for his blood. The same mob doesn't know how to handle the cold-blooded murder of Jared's seven year old son, whose throat Luke Morris, the Pastor's devoted disciple, simply slits.

Meanwhile, far from home, in a pit of half-burned bodies, Thomas McDermott comes back from the dead. He remembers the end, the bayonet buried to its hilt in his chest... yet here he is. No two ways about it: he's one of the Walkin' now. To wit, his darling daughter Mary may also bear the taint.

A Barkley man born and bred, Thomas's faith is desperately tested by this fate worse than death. "Would there ever be a punishment?" he wonders.
Was there anyone, the Good Lord or otherwise, to judge him and mete it out? Had he done anything wrong? He'd wanted an end to these questions, an end to the uncertainty. To spill [it all] out onto the orange soil at the bottom of the canyon. (pp.46-47)
In the end, Thomas can't bring himself the commit this mortal sin. Instead, he grapples with an impossible choice: to go west or escape into the east. He could return home to Barkley, though he's well aware of what awaits him there — of how his reappearance could endanger his wife and child — or traipse towards the secret Walkin' commune on Black Mountain.

He heads home, of course.

It, uh... doesn't end well.

This is hardly surprising. From word one on, Your Brother's Blood is harrowing, haunting and all too human. Towsey starts his book boldly, with a scorching sermon about the wickedness of the Walkin' presented in canny parallel with Thomas's repugnant reawakening — courtesy a tickling carri-clicky which burrows through him as he claws his way out of a mass grave. It's stomach-churning stuff, one sequence as much as the other. And these awful things are but the beginning.

To be clear, the Walkin' are zombies of a sort, but they aren't interested in brains; they're just dead men that move, have memories and want what they've always wanted. For Thomas, that's first and foremost the safety of Mary and Sarah, however if he's to spend his second life in hiding, he wants to see them one last time. So though his return to Barkley might be misguided, Thomas is so smartly characterised we sympathise entirely.

The supporting cast are more of a mixed bag than our profaned protagonist. Some obvious shorthand — I speak of a peeping Tom, primarily — marks the bad guys from the good. Amongst the latter camp, several seemingly central individuals serve no discernible purpose; a number are marginalised by the narrative; still others are left to languish in the last act. Your Brother's Blood doesn't chronicle an ensemble, either. It's a slight novel, and hardly action-packed.

Much of this, I'm moved to moot, is down to the fact that Your Brother's Blood is but the inaugural volume of The Walkin'. That's all well and good — though the rise of the saga is at times a tiresome trend, I could hardly call myself a genre fiction fan if I weren't willing to forgive the format. Indeed, I'll certainly be reading the next novel in this series, given that Your Brother's Blood affected me, in the main, in much the same way Alden Bell's melancholy debut did... which is to say immensely.

Be that as it may, the decision to close the book on book one when Towsey does left me feeling — I won't beat around the bush here — cheated. But only because I cared so much about Thomas and Mary and Sarah. Only because I had invested heavily in what is from the first a fascinating, emotionally enrapturing narrative, and immersed myself in the pitch-perfect, undead western setting of Your Brother's Blood.

I might be an unbeliever, but I have faith in David Towsey to tell the rest of this tale well. I only wish he'd had the good grace to follow through in more ways than the one he undoubtedly does in this book too. Nevertheless, Your Brother's Blood is a tremendously memorable debut, and a striking start to what promises to be a bloody biblical trilogy.


Your Brother's Blood
by David Towsey

UK Publication: August 2013, Jo Fletcher Books

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Or get the Kindle edition

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