Friday, November 1, 2013

Book Review: '48

Book Review: '48 by James Herbert

2 / 5 Stars

’48 was published in hardcover in 1997; this Harper Prism paperback (435 pp) was released in 1998.

The novel takes place in an alternate England, which, in March 1945, is bombarded by Nazi V-2 rockets carrying a biowarfare agent called the ‘Blood Death’. The Blood Death causes a gruesome death by hemorrhage, and within a matter of weeks, all but a tiny fraction of the UK’s population has succumbed.

The survivors can be grouped into two cohorts: there are those who have a slight resistance to the Blood Death, and thus are the ‘slow dying’….getting a little sicker with each passing day, a little closer to bleeding out in a final spasm of agony.

Then there are those with blood type AB-negative, the truly immune.

As the novel opens, it’s the Summer of ’48, and the first-person narrator, an American fighter pilot named Eugene Nathaniel Hoke, is lounging in the empty hallways of the Savoy Hotel in London. With the good fortune to be an AB-negative and immune to the plague, when not enjoying having a five-star hotel to his disposal, Hole roams the silent streets of London, carefully ignoring the corpses inside the rusting cars and trucks, lying on the doorsteps of houses, or simply moldering as they lie on the sidewalks and the roadways.

Hoke doesn’t have it all easy, however. A band of slow dying fascists, wearing the uniforms of Britain’s Blackshirts, and led by a psychopath named Hubble, are intent on capturing him. Their goal: transfuse Hoke’s blood into Hubble, in a wild hope that this will arrest the disease, and let Hubble live to establish a fascist state in the ruins of England.

Needless to say, Hoke has no intention of letting himself be drained in order to prolong the life of Hubble, nor any other Blackshirt.

Complications arrive when Hoke discovers that there are other survivors in London….an upper-class society girl named Muriel, a working-class girl named Cissie, and a German POW named Stern. Muriel and Cissie seem like they can be trusted. But Stern may not be what he appears to be….but with Hubble and the Blackshirts right on his tail, Hoke will have to take chances if he is to live another day……..

James Herbert (1943 – 2013) wrote ’48 late in his career, and, rather than another of the horror novels for which he was well-known and highly successful, he was obviously trying to produce an action novel in the Robert Ludlum tradition. But for me, ‘48’ was a disappointment, mainly because it’s essentially one long ‘chase’ novel, and too much of a stretch for Herbert’s abilities.

The ‘Blood Death’ component of the backstory is an afterthought, more of a plot device to provide Herbert with a deserted, Omega Man – style London within which to set his action sequences. The novel also is devoid of any horror or supernatural overtones; unlike the ‘Lair’ series, this ruined metropolis contains no monsters or sci-fi anomalies.

In the absence of any horror or sf content, the reader is left with an increasingly tedious series of hairs-breadth escapes, last –minute reprieves, the just-in-time collapsing of ceilings, guns that happen to jam just when the holder intends to fire, etc., etc.

It doesn’t help things that Hoke is one of stupider characters I've encountered in a Herbert novel, nor that the brief sections of the narrative in which the chase is suspended, are given over to Herbert speechifying about the loathsome nature of Fascism and Bigotry.

The climax of ’48, and the final confrontation between Hoke and the Blackshirts, takes place amid some famous London landmarks. There is some inherent drama in such a setup, but unfortunately, this sequence is so over-written that by the time Herbert closed the novel, I was more than ready for the final paragraph to make its appearance. 

In summary, ’48 is for true Herbert aficionados only.

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