Afterlight is the follow up to Alex Scarrow's 2007 novel Last Light, in which a deliberately engineered crash in the global oil supply triggers the complete collapse of civilisation.
Afterlight picks up the story 10 years after the crash. The heroes of the first book, Jenny Sutherland and her family - grown-up children Jacob and Leona, and the latter's daughter, Hannah - are living on an oil rig off the coast of Norfolk, taking refuge from the murderous, rapacious gangs that gripped the mainland following the breakdown of law and order. On the rig, Jenny leads a group of hundreds of refugees who have become self-sufficient at sea, growing their own vegetables and even producing enough power from waste to provide some heat and light.
Meanwhile, back in London, another group of survivors living in the Millennium Dome are living on dwindling supplies stockpiled 10 years earlier when the Dome was designated one of a number of emergency centres for such a crisis. It is the only one remaining, however, and its leader Alan Maxwell, a former civil servant, rules the Dome using a band of boy soldiers, who wield their guns and authority to terrifying effect.
The hard-earned equilibirum on the oil rig is jolted when the group agrees to take in a Belgian man who is found bloodied and beaten in the nearby harbour town of Bracton. Once recovered Valerie Latoc begins to undermine Jenny's authority by exploiting the petty jealousies, boredom and fear of those living on the rig.
Shortly after, Jenny's son Jacob and friend Nathan leave the rig having heard from Latoc that he saw bright lights in the big City. Attracted by the excitement of am electricity-fuelled life they don't even remember, and a break from the dull routine of the rig, the two boys set off. Inevitably, their wanderingseventually lead them to the Dome, and trouble, both for themselves and their rig-living kin.
When Afterlight was published last week, Scarrow posted to his Facebook site that he felt this was his best book "by far". I would agree - with the caveat that I have not read his first book, A Thousand Suns, or quite finished the YA novel Time Riders (more on which another time).
This is a clever book for a number of reasonsm the first being that you don't need to have read Last Light to get into it and enjoy it - although I recommend that you do - but also for those who have the previous novel the scene-setting back fill necessary to bring new readers up to speed will not be a distraction. By telling that story briefly from a different perspective - through the eyes of an RAF officer called to the Dome for security - Scarrow delivers all readers quickly to the same page.
Secondly, this book takes the now very familiar apocalpyse story - see Survivors, 2012 etc etc - on to a second storyline: when survival has been achieved, but with "civilisation" gone, what sort of life is left? What sort of life is necessary?
The most fascinating aspects of the book deal with these questions. With Maxwell offering his teen army a hedonistic lifestyle of alcohol, dope and PlayStations - the "old" life - in return for security and control. Maxwell must deal with the question of how the diminution of these reserves will alter the balance of power in his domain. Jenny on the other hand is offering safe harbour and sustainability and must deal with the gradual creep of the "old" world - an hour of electricity a night - into a community that has learned to live without it, but craves former comforts.
Built in here is the obvious contrast between a male-dominated society and one built and led by women. Throw a hefty does of charismatic religious power into the mix - as Scarrow does - and you have all the ingredients for a heady brew.
If this all sounds a little too philsopophical / political / sociological for your commute or the beach, then don't worry. These ideas are built into a pacy, entertaining narrative that never forgets that it is thriller first.
It is a cracking good read, an accomplished novel by a writer who - and I grow weary of writing this - deserves a far bigger audience than he has so far achieved. Let's hope that Afterlight wins it for him. It is a worthy novel, and I urge you to get hold of a copy.