By Rogers Cadenhead: What began with 300 books is down to 7. The finalists in the first Self-Published Science Fiction Competition were announced this week.
If the rules had allowed just one more finalist, the eighth-ranked book was A Touch of Death, a tale of apocalypse, authoritarianism and class. Rebecca Crunden’s novel was one of three selected for the semifinals by File 770 and we’ve decided to make it our SPSFC Hidden Gem (trademark 2022 Hugh C — as in Catamaran – Howey, all rights reserved).
A Touch of Death begins with a royal proclamation that lets the reader know immediately what kind of world they’ve entered:
“Henceforth there is one religion, one language and one ruler as decided within the PROCLAMATION OF UNITY. The sacrifices for this peace being those which are the most insidious aspects of human nature: FREEDOM and HISTORY. These known forces of destruction and their encompassing evils are hereafter decreed ILLEGAL and REGRESSIVE. The KINGDOM will be ruled in adherence to these beliefs, and maintains that the most important aspects of society will, from this day forth, be CONFORMITY, CONTROL and CONTINUATION.”
With so many rights under attack in the real world by leaders obscuring their skullduggery in platitudes and propaganda, I can appreciate a fictional despot who says the quiet part out loud.
After a long-ago armageddon left many humans mutated, the civilization that arises is one in which most people live in suffering while the rich who’ve kept the king’s favor thrive in the capital. The protagonists Nate and Catherine are wealthy and well-connected but both will face the question, “Can I really live with myself if I accept the way things are?”
Nate answers quickly. We meet him as he’s being thrown into prison to face unspeakable treatment for protesting against the crown. The normal sentence for any political dissent is the gallows, but Nate’s parents pull strings.
Two years later, he’s out and circumstances put him on the run with Catherine, his brother’s betrothed and the daughter of the king’s hangman. A toxic malady afflicts them that gives the book its name.
Crunden writes well, immersing readers in the world and characters with natural ease. When you are sampling 30 self-published novels at a breakneck pace for SPSFC, you appreciate an author who leads you smoothly into the depths like a diver barely breaking the surface of the water.
As Catherine and Nate journey across their blighted world and deal with what has happened to them, it’s obvious where their mutual dislike seems to be headed. But one of them falls for the other too fast and the other fails to accept their completely unraveled life.
There’s appeal in how unappealing the two characters are to each other for most of this novel. Catherine mopes too much and Nate declares his love way before it’s reciprocated.
Before this sounds too romcom, the book is primarily driven by the mystery of their illness and the dangers they face in the lands far from their childhoods of comfort and conformity.
Crunden’s a skilled writer with one unusual tic I enjoyed — a penchant for really long lists: “Catherine joined Tove in the lounge to read up on whales, dolphins, fish, otters, seas, jellyfish, octopuses, squid, sea lions, eels, coral, and all the things that lurked beneath them. … The King owned all the land and regulated how much went to Cutta, the heart of his Kingdom, and how much was allowed to remain with the laymen, workers, gardeners, ranchers, herders, shepherds, sowers, and all the other low level hands who kept the Kingdom afloat.” No love for marlins, manatees, marketers and massage therapists?
The final third of the novel thrills and terrifies when the protagonists can’t run any more. The dread building page by page over the consequences of opposing the king turns out to be well-founded.
A Touch of Death satisfies as a standalone, but it’s also the start of the Outlands Pentalogy, so there’s like three, four or eight books to come I am guessing don’t @ me. When SPSFC ends, I’m eager to read more of this series.
But I wouldn’t be opposed to Nate and Kate seeing other people.
SPSFC art by Tithi Luadthong. Logos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)