James Lovegrove, Untied Kingdom (Gollancz, 2003)

'"One of the vans stopped and a couple of men jumped out, Fen." Said Beth. Her hand was still on his shoulder. "Jumped out, grabbed her, pulled her into the van, drove away. I can still hardly believe it."'

Untied Kingdom is the tale of two people in a broken future version of England. Fen Morris, a teacher, lives in the small town of Downbourne. His marriage to Moira is crumbling, but neither wants to admit it, or take the drastic steps required to move on. The couple epitomise what Pink Floyd meant by hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. Then, at the local festival, change is imposed by the arrival of the British Bulldogs. Under the leadership of the charmingly named King Cunt, they're one of the brutal gangs who now rule areas of London. The Bulldogs are on a bitch hunt; their purpose to steal womenfolk for use in their private brothel. Among those taken by the crop-haired thugs is Moira. At first, nobody wants to react, defeated by the distance, and the knowledge that there is little chance of freeing the captives. Only Fen chooses to mount a rescue mission, despite the odds, because he feels that it's the right thing to do. Here the story divides between Fen's faltering attempts to reach London, and Moira's up close, first person perspective on her captivity. The depth of characterisation presented, in both the lead characters and all those they encounter, is top notch stuff. Lovegrove writes with a flowing, easy to read style, big on realistic dialogue, sharp descriptive, and believable situations.

'I'm too scared to move. There's an ache in my throat. My heart's going nine to the dozen. They're talking about me, but I don't want to hear what they're saying. It's my hair. Something about my hair. That's why they stopped for me. Red hair. 'He' will like it. Whoever 'he' is.'

What stopped a very good book being brilliant is the lack of attention to the back story. Any author presenting an alternate history is, in my estimation, obliged to explain how things came to be so different. In Untied Kingdom, we learn that a body called the International Community has reduced most of England, (but not the rest of the UK), to rubble. England is now a Third World country, ostracised from world affairs, and subject to occasional bombing raids. Whatever went so drastically wrong, is based around another unexplained event, referred to as the Unlucky Gamble. The British government has voted itself into exile in Bermuda, before things got too bad for them. Urban areas are now ruled by local warlords, while more rural areas are inspired to maintain some degree of normality by individuals who have assumed the mantle of legendary hero figures; Robin Hood, Lady Godiva and the Green Man being examples. The latter, a charismatic middle-aged gentleman who dies his skin green, begins the story as the mayor of Downbourne. Regrettably, this rich vein of imagination remains largely untapped, and the author makes no attempt to explain how a nuclear power could be broken so completely, without the use of weapons of mass destruction.

'"I'm getting the distinct impression you don't think much of politicians."

"Line 'em all up and shoot 'em," Beam said cheerfully. Of course, I don't ever expect this utopian fantasy of mine to come to pass. It's just a dream I have. A dream of leaders who do us justice rather than do us over."'

It's ironic that while the back story is something of a damp squib, the lives of Lovegrove's cast include fireworks aplenty. Craig Smith, the British Bulldog leader who became King Cunt, is shown to be much more than a thug -- both by his tender relationship with Moira, and his understanding of what's going on within the mind of Nev, his second in command, and the man who would be King. Similarly, the people Fen meets on his dangerous journey have a warmth and wit which makes them a delight to read. These include a woman named Myriam, who is part of a small group of bookworms that take the works of their favourite author as the basis of a proto religion. The gentle sideswipe at Scientology is unmistakable. Then there's Ravi Wickramasinge, a closet gay Indian train driver, who has liberated some rolling stock and painted it in a Hindu theme. Most appealing is Beam, an ebullient member of the landed gentry who has used Fairfield Hall, the family estate, to maintain his own idyllic community. Because they're so well drawn, it's easy to care for these characters when the reality of the new England touches their lives. The adventures of Fen and Moira are blended seamlessly with the bitter-sweet, often understated nature, of their emotions and evolving relationships, the end result being a recommended read.

[Nathan Brazil]