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Guardians of the Phoenix by Eric Brown

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Guardians of the Phoenix by Eric Brown
Solaris, 2010, 430pp.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for future dystopia novels. The idea fascinates me: so much of science fiction is about how wonderful the future is going to be, but what if things go wrong? Could the things that are extolled so much in SF actually result in the opposite? Additionally, dystopias are a great way to explore what makes us human and what makes humans exceptional.

This past year I’ve heard a lot of buzz about the writings of Eric Brown, that he’s the next big thing. So when I saw that he had a new dystopian novel coming out, Guardians of the Phoenix, I snatched it up.

Approximately one hundred years from now, a series of man-made and natural catastrophes have destroyed almost all life on earth. Water is a very rare resource with the oceans all but dried up and freshwater difficult to come by. The great cities of Europe are being erased by the encroaching desert and humanity is nothing but a handful of enclaves, a number of which fight amongst themselves for the few precious resources.

Paris has been reduced to a desert and only two people are left living there. Paul is in his early twenties and goes out daily to hunt for water and to capture the few remaining lizards for meat for himself and the only other human in his world, the octogenarian Elise. One day, though, he comes across a young woman who is being chased by some well-equipped men who hunt her down and after taking advantage of her turn to cannibalism.

Paul is, of course, appalled by what he sees, but he doesn’t know (yet) that the hunters are on the run from the human enclave they were a part of. The hunters’ leader, Hans, had a falling out with the leaders of the Baltic band of humans and has left, taking with him knowledge of where there might be a huge store of food. The Baltic humans have sent a contingent after Hans, mostly to try to save the girl who is the daughter of one of their leaders.

The groups meet in Paris where Paul is being held captive by Hans. They engage in a shoot-out and Paul is rescued by the Baltic group. Hans and his group, however, flee and the Baltic group take a detour on the way home to try to discover some water.

Hans heads ‘home’ to his original enclave, only to head out again with the leader and his some-time lover, Samara, who has just learned from her dying father that one of humanity’s last big attempts to save itself, the Phoenix project, was thwarted by terrorists but it could still hold the secret to humanity’s redemption.

The two groups — Samara and Hans and the Baltic enclave — end up running into each other again. Each group has something the other wants and an uneasy peace ensues until the truth about the practices of Samara’s group comes out and an all-out fight ensues as they each try to find the Phoenix project without the other knowing.

The Guardian of the Phoenix is definitely a page turner. From the moment I picked it up, the story line had me hooked and the pace never flagged. Brown only gradually (and never completely) tells the story of how humanity managed to destroy itself and yet save itself in the midst of death. Along the way he tosses out tiny bits of information, pieces to a larger puzzle that he eventually reveals at the end. All along, though, he lets the reader know that there is something more coming; he just doesn’t tell you what that is until the very end.

And the story he tells to get you to that revelation is action-packed. From the first page to the last, there is always something going on, something to get you to turn the page. Even though the plot is densely packed, Brown has a light touch that keeps even the coincidences from seeming contrived or unlikely.

If there’s one complaint I have about the book, it is that the big reveal at the end doesn’t have much to do with the main characters of the novel: they are merely tools to discover the secret of humanity’s salvation, but have little to do with obtaining that salvation, other than (literally) flipping a switch.

But still, Guardians of the Phoenix is a wonderful adventure that still manages to look at the extremes that a violent environment might put humans through to survive. Brown asks the question about whether the ends justify the means and gives a satisfying answer without being the slightest bit preachy.

If you haven’t read Eric Brown yet, I recommend doing so. This is SF as it should be: deep in meaning yet also a fun read!

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