In the north of England, in the year 2020, scientific breakthroughs by companies such as ‘L Max’ lead to a new dawn of agriculture, where food would show great changes and never spoil when properly treated by their products. Whether this was the reason that the people and animals of Earth quickly turned to what the survivors would refer to as “infected” – monstrous corpse-people who lose control of their bodies for the craving of flesh – would never be certain. Nor would be the fates of those left untainted. We join one small group of survivors make their way to greener pastures, through danger and infection, and the reluctant consumption of packaged meats. This is The Red by Aiden Riley.
Off the bat, the book has a habit of both showing and telling, informing us of how characters definitively ‘are’ while also showing these traits in action, often in the same breath. What can be implied through speech is often reinforced in the way the speech is immediately described thereafter. Much of the book is rather over-explained, and yet the author neglects key parts of some descriptions that would make a paragraph fluid, or even really understandable. This is partly due to the almost movie-style depictions of action that seem to assume you have the imagination to fill in many blanks the author leaves, with concurrent actions being neglected and long segments of speech with nothing accompanying. This is a real issue, and though not as common as it could have been, even one necessary double-take or turned-back page per chapter seems excessive for something that would have easily been erased with the help of a good editor.
Admittedly the book really gives into some 28 Days Later style tried-and-tested post-apocalypse zombie-survival tropes. The “infected” are thankfully, more than anything, occasional predators that while normally easily finished off, almost always takes a toll on the group. It’s that nail-biting tension that made this style great, and for the most part its effectively handled, despite many encounters being over as soon as they began. Action is surprisingly not the book’s strong suit whatsoever, which begs the question of why it was included. The focus, as with the apparent inspiration 28 Days Later, is the people trapped here, and the weight of the daily existence that pulls them down, who they were and what they have come to be, and it holds this part of the story up high. Every character has a quiet desperation about them, muted by exhaustion and a desire to lay down arms. Such a time never comes, and the book does a very good job of pushing you along despite sparse background and only pinpricks of motivation prodded and subsequently pressed over time and time again. That said, as it takes a few chapters and a few different viewpoints to see where the plot is heading, it also unfortunately doesn’t really get there in this book. It’s a real shame, and perhaps if there is a sequel they can be put together for a comprehensive read.
Overall, the book feels almost unfinished. It’s by no means short, but it comes to a close on a whisper, not a bang, and an obvious teaser epilogue leaves very little at all to go on. Riley has previously shown talent as a writer in his violent and thoughtful coming-of-age piece Ray Ryan, and while the same forte of subject matter is transferred over to The Red, Riley has yet to properly find the right level of of ‘punchiness’ in his writing to go from ‘promising’ to ‘great’ here. The design of both the cover and the chapters’ layout are well thought-out and idealized and the book shows promise through and through, and what it does well in characterization and cohesive, mostly self-contained storytelling it does very well, but a real lack of polish lets the book down. I sincerely hope that the author takes note of these issues before releasing his next title so that it can be everything The Red promised to be.