A Lovely Way to Burn: Lukewarm post-apocalyptic lit

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A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh speculative fiction book reviewsA Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

Post-apocalyptic literature is having a bit of a moment. This is probably because you can’t call anything dystopia anymore without someone rolling their eyes, but still. Louise Welsh’s contribution to the genre is A Lovely Way to Burn, in which a flu pandemic (kind of grossly nicknamed “the sweats”) is wreaking havoc on the human race. Welsh’s tale is set in contemporary London and it’s all her heroine, Stevie Flint, can do to try and survive the descent into chaos.

The novel opens (in truly British fashion) with the Tory MP for Hove sunning himself in a deckchair in the back garden of his residence on the river Thames. He then proceeds to load up his gun and open fire on the tourists, ploughing down six holidaymakers. The scene then cuts to a hedge-fund manager for a bank, who opens fire in a crowded tube carriage on the Underground. Next a cleric goes on a killing spree. The matter-of-factness of the massacres and the mild-mannered Englishmen that carry them out are truly unsettling and it’s as good a hook for a novel as I’ve ever read.

Enter Stevie Flint, ballsy heroine and ex-journalist who works as a presenter on a low-budget shopping channel. We first meet her as she is stood up, waiting for a date with her attractive (if emotionally absent) surgeon boyfriend, Simon Sharkey. Simon doesn’t show up, but with good reason: he’s dead. With the sweats gripping London, his death is just one amongst thousands and thousands, but Stevie is convinced he didn’t die of the flu. She is sure there is something darker at play here and she is determined to find out what it is.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNot only has her boyfriend died (and possibly been murdered) but Stevie herself comes down with the killer virus that is wiping out citizens of London and other capital cities around the world. After a terse few days (and a lot of soiled bedding) Stevie emerges as one of the only survivors. Luckily, this enables her to pursue the mystery of Simon’s death, and it becomes apparent that he was embroiled in far more dodgy dealings than he’d ever let on to Stevie. Now she must evade the stalkers that are after her and try and outsmart Simon’s sinister colleagues.

After a hugely promising opening, it seems the rest of the novel can’t quite live up to its beginning. Yes, Stevie is feisty and gutsy and ticks all the boxes for the strong female lead, but there is something a bit flat about her and around two-thirds of the way through A Lovely Way to Burn she somehow lost my attention. This was, in part, due to the dodgy similes that absolutely plagued this book (see what I did there? If you think that was bad, the similes are worse). It felt as though the novel was being driven by the plot alone, with action scene after action scene eventually culminating in an exhausting ending.

A Lovely Way to Burn is the first instalment of a trilogy, which perhaps explains the somewhat unsatisfying ending. Certain questions would, naturally, need to be left unanswered, but I can’t help feeling a little cheated by how stingy Welsh has been in tying up plot threads. The novel was also released in the same year as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which no book was ever really going to measure up to. Nonetheless, if post-apocalyptic lit is your thing, A Lovely Way to Burn is a solid addition to the genre. Just don’t read Station Eleven first…


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RACHAEL “RAY” MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well — a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette — those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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3 comments

  1. I think there could be an interesting study done of the types of apocalypses we have in fiction. In the 60s thru the 80s, they were almost all thermo-nuclear; pollution and habitat degradation got a nod for a while, and now killer viruses are the rage. Nice reflection of fiction serving its purpose by showing us what we fear and how we interact with it.

    Time portals that bring dinosaurs into our midst never really swept the post-apoc sub-genre.

    (Yes, I do know I’ve over-simplified.)

    • That’s a really interesting observation, and don’t forget the zombies – I feel like they’re making a comeback too. Marion, there is a definite gap in the market for time portals and dinosaurs. I think it is begging to be filled

      • Oh, yes, zombies, combining both the fear of disease and the capitalistic fear of economic failure. How could I forget?

        Yes, people wanting to read about time portal and dinosaurs rampaging through their quiet neighborhoods have been under-served lately.

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