I’ve never much cared for end-of-the-world stories, but I’ve always had a soft spot for stories which skip the Bomb/plagues/asteroids/zombies and show us what happens a few hundred years later, when the initial unpleasantness has been forgotten and wonky new societies have arisen from the ruins. It’s quite a long tradition, which I suppose kicks off with Richard Jefferies’s After London and takes in things like The Time Machine, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Chrysalids, Riddley Walker and the Mad Max movies. It also includes Fever Crumb and Mortal Engines, which is maybe why V. Peyton’s debut children’s novel Silo the Seer comes advertised in some places as ‘for fans of Philip Reeve’.
At the start, Silo the Seer seems to be set in one of those worlds which is so post-apocalyptic it might as well be fantasy. The orphaned Silo lives in a shabby community of mediaeval mudlarks on an island in the Eastern Marshes, but dreams of one day travelling to the Capital City. He also has the power to see into the future sometimes – by magic, we presume. But once his journeys begin, we start to realise that the country he travels through is Britain, and not so very far in the future – there are weed-grown motorways, and the ruins of towns and cities still stand, although the people of Silo’s time are as spooked by the remains as the Anglo-Saxons were by Roman buildings, and prefer to live in their own ramshackle wooden settlements. In the woods prowl dangerous ‘zoo animals’, and off the coasts sail the pirate ships of the Raiders. As is so often the way in this type of set-up, the corrupt government dreams of regaining the lost power of the Ancients, and is recruiting ‘seers’ like Silo to help do it. But so far their only success has been rediscovering the rules of ‘goat ball’…
…they knew that there were clubs involved, a net at each end of the pitch, two eleven-man teams, and the winners were the ones who got the most goats. With this to go on they had been able to reconstruct the game very much as it must have been played in the time of the Ancients, and Silo could see before him a rectangle of smooth green grass with a goat pen at each end.
As that excerpt suggests, Silo the Seer‘s secret weapon is its humour, which is dry, funny, and threaded right through the story, brightening all its darker corners. In YA versions of this type of book there’s often a misanthropic suggestion that the Ancients (us) deserved to be wiped out because of our greed, violence, etc. etc. V. Peyton doesn’t bother trying to guilt-trip her young readers in this way, preferring to use the end of civilisation more as a jumping-off point for jokes and high adventure. It’s not out-and-out parody, but it’s close enough that it can get away with things which might seem too much like cliché or coincidence in a book that took itself more seriously. There are also some surprisingly elegiac passages, such as the journey along the old motorway, and the section when child labourers escaping from one of the government’s archaeological digs steal a raft and escape downriver into scenes reminiscent of Arthur Ransome or Kenneth Grahame. But the best comparison would probably be the early Harry Potter books, which had a similar combination of humour, likeable young characters and page-turning adventure. It ought to please young readers, older readers looking for something to read to young readers, and anyone else who enjoys this sort of thing. It ends with virtue triumphant, villainy punished, and loose ends tied up, while leaving plenty of room for Silo to have further adventures. I hope there will be many more.
(Silo the Seer will be published by Random House on 6th August 2015)