G X Todd – Defender

In a world where long drinks are in short supply, a stranger listens to the voice in his head telling him to buy a lemonade from the girl sitting on a dusty road.

The moment locks them together.

Here and now it’s dangerous to listen to your inner voice. Those who do, keep it quiet.

These voices have purpose.

And when Pilgrim meets Lacey, there is a reason. He just doesn’t know it yet.

Defender pulls you on a wild ride to a place where the voices in your head will save or slaughter you.

G X Todd’s debut novel Defender, the first in a four-part series called The Voices, was an unexpected surprised when it arrived in the mail. The accompanying information was intriguing, but didn’t reveal much, so going in to the book I didn’t really know what to expect. I certainly hadn’t expected to find a gripping, post-apocalyptic adventure that wasn’t just engrossing in its own right, but also made me think a lot about how we regard mental illness, specifically conditions that include auditory hallucinations, such as schizophrenia. 

Hearing voices is at the core of the novel’s apocalypse. At some point in the near-future, humanity starts hearing voices, voices that tell them to kill–others and themselves. As a result most of the population of the United States died — unfortunately, no mention is made of the rest of the globe, but you have to assume the same happened there — and the remnants that are left are isolated, scared, and in some cases retreating into violence. While I’d shelve this book as a post-apocalyptic story, it is in these violent encounters and communes that the book shows why I’ve also seen it classified as dystopian as the organisation of the large band of survivors our hero’s encounter is very much in that vein.

The central mystery of the book is the nature of the voices. What or who are they? In this first book we learn something of their nature and abilities, but not their origin or their intentions. We do however learn that not all of them are intent on humanity’s destruction. Most of this we discover through Voice, who lives in Pilgrim’s head and maintains a lively commentary on Pilgrim’s actions, both scolding and guiding him, more like a friend than an adversary. I loved Voice, especially as he becomes more prominent in the second half of the book. He is the one providing most of the explanations on the voices and he does so in a wonderfully dry tone. I also loved that Voice isn’t all-knowing and unflappable—indeed there are some situations where he is genuinely taken aback by the reactions and questions he gets from his carrier.

The fact that hearing voices (and interacting with them out loud) has become not just a reason to be looked askance at, or even with fear, but is an active reason for others to harm and kill those with a voice made me think a lot about real world mental illnesses and the way we treat those who have them. While in the book people become literally isolated from one another, trying to avoid interactions as much as possible, in our reality we isolate people with mental illness figuratively; even if they live in our midst, we often avoid and ignore them. The constant paranoia with which strangers in the narrative regard each other until they know whether they Hear and the constant self-doubt the characters suffer wondering whether their inner monologue is actually a dialogue, created a lot of strain on the characters in the book, which upped the tension another notch.

While I adored Pilgrim’s gruff, reserved attitude and his grudging affection for Lacey, it is the latter who shines the brightest in this book and whose desire to find her sister and niece becomes the central quest in the book. Lacey is a curious mixture of innocence and wariness, with a youthful resilience and courage that is hard to resist. It is through her eyes that we are confronted with the most horrendous acts of violence in the book, yet it is an unflinching look at violence and trauma, to which Lacey reacts with surprising compassion. Throughout the novel Lacey from numerous relationships and I loved that none of these was actually romantic. In fact, the most important bonds she forms are those of friendship, or perhaps even of found family, with Pilgrim becoming a big brother/father figure and Alex most definitely being like a big sister.

Defender isn’t an easy book to read. There is a lot of violence and death in the book, including sexual violence on and off the page, so it is good to be aware of that if that is something that might trigger you. Todd also almost gave me heart attacks at numerous points because I feared for the safety of the characters. She really didn’t pull any punches. I like Todd’s writing style, which was gripping, smooth, and well-paced. I’m glad Defender is the first of four books as I’m happy to know we’ll be able to return to Lacey and her posse and spend more time with them. G X Todd’s debut is impressive and promises a lot for the future.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.