Richard Calder, The Twist (Four Wall Eight Windows, 2003)

"You play in saloons?" A voice interpolated from a pinched orifice that, to any reasonable person, was readily identifiable as a pig's anus, but which, in my mother, substituted for a mouth.

In its simplest form, The Twist is about a death wish. Told in the first person, the narrator is nine year-old Nicola E. Newton, who we meet as she arrives with her parents at Tombstone, in the Wild West. Also in the stagecoach are John Twist, a gunslinger who was hanged but didn't die, and a Venusian called Viva Venera. Like all her kind, she is the physical embodiment of a human Death — specifically John Twist's death. The Venusians came to Earth years ago, and in an effort to save humanity from the dangerous toys it acquired in the wake of this interplanetary contact, created the Wild West. Described as a psychogeographic event, it exists alongside, but separate from, the rest of the Earth. In the normal world history as we know it has, for the most part, taken place. But in the Wild West, things are still much as they were in the days of Doc Holliday. Modern day technology does not work, although the various extraterrestrial inhabitants seem to have no problem bending the rules. At the far end of the Wild West is a town called Desdichado, from which it is possible to take the many years long journey across a physical bridge from Earth to the Death world, Venus. John Twist and Viva Venera are lovers, bound together for all time, and stuck on Earth, until Twist truly dies. At that point, the Venusian will eat his soul, and they will both, in theory, return to her home world. Nicola E. Newton sees much to admire in this oddest of odd couples, and conspires to tag along with them.

"But this Cold War of yours is getting out of hand. How can we any longer have such faith in your instincts for self-preservation? How can we believe that US military superiority will not tempt some crazy fool in the White House to launch a first strike?"

The back cover blurb describes the book as The Matrix meets A Fistful of Dollars, but that soon proves to be an overly optimistic appraisal. One problem is a plot which makes it hard work to suspend disbelief. Nicola, the nine year-old anti-hero, absconds from school, drinks in bars, runs away from home, and hangs around with a Necrobabe and her killer boyfriend. All without her parents ever coming to look for her, or the other adults finding this in any way odd. But the biggest problem I had was the same kind of thing that spoils the Artemis Fowl books: a child who acts, thinks and talks like a thirty-five year-old intellectual. Nicola's frequent use of obscure words and phrases that are not in common usage among nine year-olds — or for that matter the majority of adults — reads like an attempt to develop pretentiousness as an art form! I’m not suggesting that language should be dumbed down, only that it should be in keeping with the age, experience and circumstances of the character. The background history that is briefly touched upon hints at interesting events, and there seems to be more to the leading characters than their face value. But before one idea is ever satisfactorily explored, the author lurches into another burst of imagineering. We are introduced to Nazi loving Niflheim, mutant spider riders, a manitou called Cochise, the CIA, E-bombs, Q-Bombs, explosively pumped Flux Compression Generators, etc. Focus is lost in a whirl of ideas.

"The E-bomb, if it were ever deployed on Earth, would represent the quintessence of Venusian power," said Miss Viva. "In many respects, a Venusian is an E-bomb, that is, a construct of electrospiritual energy. The release of such power is devastating."

Nicola, Twist and Viva become embroiled in a B-movie end of the world plot, which nevertheless has a smidgeon of the charm found in old pulp fiction. There's sarcastic humour, pistol packing action, a flying saucer, and strange love. The Twist may suit those who want to try something unusual, and prefer escapist chaos over clarity. It will not work so well for anyone seeking depth of character, believability, and a principle cast who are solid enough to make the reader care. Richard Calder certainly has an imagination which is off the leash, and this novel displays an innovative premise. But my feeling was that if he'd produced more tightly focused plot, with deeper characterisation, and had an editor able to spot the credibility flaws, this book would've been what it could've been.

[Nathan Brazil]