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Wednesday 3 January 2024

The Arid Lands - book review

 Ten years ago I reviewed Kate Kelly's first novel, Red Rock, in the January 2014 issue of Fortean Times. A fast-moving conspiracy thriller aimed at young adult readers, it was overflowing with great ideas - as this excerpt from my review shows:
The governments of the world are puppets controlled by a secretive, authoritarian space agency, which is hiding the truth about what lies on Mars while pursuing a sinister agenda of its own. There are hints of a powerful new form of energy ... pursued with equal vigour by our heroes and the evil space agency, while a mysterious order of Maltese monks will seemingly go to any lengths to prevent either party from succeeding.

Since then, I've reviewed two other novels by Kate Kelly, both on Goodreads: The Sleepers (2022), which is a conspiracy thriller aimed at an older audience, and more recently The Arid Lands (2023). The latter is less fortean than Red Rock but just as imaginative, so I thought I'd put an expanded version of my review here, where I can go into a little more detail on a couple of points (and even work in a bit of retro-forteana at the end).

While the first two books were issued by mainstream publishers, this one - a variation on the "climate-change dystopia" theme - is self-published (not because there's no market for this genre, but, I suspect, because the market is already saturated to breaking point). One interesting feature of the book is its cover - a literal rendering of an early scene from the novel, which Kate produced using an AI image creator. It was reading about her experiments in this area that prompted me to play around with AI image creation myself - something that's featured in several of my recent videos as well as a book cover  of my own.
As a thriller, The Arid Lands is just as intriguing and exciting as Red Rock and The Sleepers. Like them, it combines an original and well thought-out scenario with an intricate, fast-moving plot that never quite goes in the direction you expect it to. This story is set further in the future than its predecessors, at a time when war and climate change have significantly altered the geopolitical landscape. But the book cleverly avoids all the obvious clichés here. For one thing, the "Arid Lands" of the title have nothing to do with global climate change, but result instead from a purely local phenomenon (which, as I've just learned from Kate's blog, is based on a real historical occurrence).

Another cliché the book avoids is the idea of a "post-apocalyptic" future that's equally dire all over the planet. Instead, the global community has become highly fragmented, with some places maintaining a relatively comfortable 1950s-ish level of technology and social structure, while others have reverted to a pre-mediaeval subsistence culture. I'm not sure how credible this is, but I found it a fascinating scenario even so. In any case, there's no time to worry about whether it makes sense or not when our protagonist has just a few days to work out what's going on and save the world!

Another thing I mentioned in my Goodreads review (and which provides the retro-fortean connection I promised earlier) is the way the plotting echoes a particular video game genre I'm fond of, namely puzzle-focused "point-and-click" adventure games (which I've discussed previously on this blog). I've lost count of how many times such games feature a young female protagonist thrust into a totally unfamiliar environment in search of a missing friend or relative.

The point is, that's pretty much how The Arid Lands works. It's full of other standard adventure game tropes too, such as locked rooms we have to escape from, a posh walled house we have to covertly break into, characters who won't help us or give us information until we do something for them, and even a pile of garbage we have to hunt through in search of something useful. So if you're a fan of such games (or if you like this kind of storyline in general) you'll probably enjoy The Arid Lands just as much as I did.

The picture below shows three particularly fortean examples of the genre I'm talking about, from the days when I bought such games on disc rather than Steam. Two of them conform to the "female protagonist in search of missing relative" stereotype I mentioned earlier. The exception, NiBiRu: Age of Secrets, is the earliest of the three, dating from 2005. But it's pure retro-forteana, the title alluding to the hypothetical planet Nibiru associated with the ancient alien theories of Zecharia Sitchin, but here tied in with a Nazi plot to take over the world using an extraterrestrial artifact located inside a Mayan pyramid.

The first game I ever played in this genre was Secret Files: Tunguska (2006), which I assumed would be something like The X-Files. It is, in terms of subject matter - which includes alien artifacts, mind control, a secret Antarctic base and the eponymous Siberian impact event - but not in terms of characters, centring as it does on a young female motorcycle mechanic desperately searching for her father and other kidnapped scientists.

A young woman searching for a kidnapped relative - in this case an uncle who's an archaeologist - also features in Chronicles of Mystery: The Scorpio Ritual (2008). This begins with a prologue showing what appears to be the Knights Templar carrying the Ark of the Covenant - both eminently fortean themes, of course - but it turns out it's actually a different monastic order, the Knights Hospitaller, and a different, though equally powerful, artifact. Coincidentally, in light of what I said about Red Rock at the top of this post, much of the action takes place on the island of Malta (and these really are just coincidences - after I posted my Goodreads review, Kate told me she'd never played a point-and-click adventure in her life!).



Colin Jones said...

Andrew, if you're interested, there's a 90-minute documentary on BBC iplayer called LOCH NESS: THEY CREATED A MONSTER which is about the people who have searched for Nessie over the decades. I haven't watched it yet but I probably will in the next few days.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - sounds a little long at 90 minutes, but I might watch it in 2 0r 3 installments over a few evenings next week. But I did listen to the radio programme you mentioned about UFOs last week, which was really excellent.