Baxter Zavcenko is one of the most unscrupulous sixteen-year-olds you’ll ever encounter. At Westridge High in Cape Town, he started The Spider, a group of friends who run a highly profitable porn business that they’re planning to expand across the Cape Peninsula school system. He’s trying to negotiate a treaty between two rival gangs because he can’t risk having the police rock up and discover his porn ring. At home, Baxter fights with his autistic brother Rafe, who he believes isn’t really as cognitively impaired as he appears and is trying to drive Baxter insane with his obsession with South African history – “Boer generals, English concentration camps and San mythology”. The images have found their way into Baxter’s increasingly violent and disturbing dreams, which “always end with people being massacred. It’s like my sleeping brain is constantly set to the History Channel. If all the re-enactments were directed by Quentin Tarantino”.
It’s no surprise that Baxter’s parents have sent him to a psychiatrist. It’s just “society-sanctioned witchcraft” as far as Baxter is concerned but he does worry about his sanity, and the reader is forced to do the same as the story gets increasingly bizarre. Cape Town is being plagued by a murderer called the Mountain Killer, who carves an eye into the foreheads of his victims. Baxter has been seeing that same eye in his dreams, and then it appears on the wall of his girlfriend Esmé’s bedroom when she suddenly goes missing.
Baxter, as you may have realised, is not the most noble person, but Esmé’s disappearance makes him realise how deeply he cares about her, and that he’d do anything to save her. Like trawling though Cape Town’s underworld of magic and mythological creatures. Baxter’s efforts lead him to the eccentric (to put it mildly), shotgun-toting supernatural bounty hunter Jackson Ronin. In Ronin’s company Baxter discovers a seedy but surreal side to Cape Town that he could never have imagined existed. He slowly starts to understand the dreams he’s been having and learns that he isn’t quite what he seems to be either. Whether that means he’s got supernatural powers or if he’s actually a murderer with multiple personalities is something he’ll have to figure out too.
If you’re wondering about the term “now now”, it’s a South Africanism that doesn’t mean now but ‘soon’. So if I say “I’ll do it now now” I mean I’ll do it in a couple of minutes (or half an hour. If I remember. But definitely not right now). It’s an awesome title, referring of course to an impending apocalypse that really only comes in at the end and is easy to forget about in this riot of urban fantasy. I mean that in a good way and a bad way.
The two covers for Apocalypse Now Now (both fantastic pieces from the inimitable Joey Hi-Fi) perfectly capture the utterly crazy feel of this novel. There’s so much to take in – a serial killer, a high school gang war, an underground government agency dealing with the supernatural, a menagerie of mythical African creatures, a twisted (i.e. really gross) brothel full of zombies and other flesh-eaters, a Murder of giant shape-shifting crows, a magic system described as “S&M without a safeword”… I could go on for a while. You might find it amazing, you might it overwhelming, but it’s certainly unique.
One thing I really like about Apocalypse Now Now is that it brings together seemingly disparate mythologies that I’ve never come across before in fiction. San mythology featuring a praying-mantis god and an Afrikaaner legend about a prophet named Siener van Rensburg play a big role, along with a touch of Japanese and Chinese mythology. There’s also Xhosa, Zulu, central African and West African mythology, along with Human’s own inventions. One of my favourite scenes is when Ronin takes Baxter with him to deal with a ‘township tick’:
They’re made of pure energy so people make deals with them. Communities feed them goats, sheep, the occasional thief or rapist convicted in a kangaroo court, and the elementals let whole neighbourhoods hook power lines into them.’
I love how this magical creature is woven into the life of an impoverished community. It’s dangerous, but it keeps the lights on.
Baxter adjusts to this new world fairly easily:
I know I should be freaking out more, but in a way I feel it’s a homecoming. I’ve been bathed in the warm glow of supernatural fantasies ever since I can remember. The fairytales my parents read me as a kid, TV, video games, it all kinda feels like they’ve been preparing me for this moment. It feels somehow natural and the other world, the one with taxes, life insurance, twenty leave days a year, cancer, and the realisation that you’re never, ever, going to be a celebrity, is the shadow, the fantasy and the delusion. The world is as I always intuited it to be: weird, fractured and full of monsters.
I think that quote captures how a lot of geeks feel – we love our sff worlds, and we spend so much time in them that they feel more real than the boring one we have to live in. Charlie Human has created a particularly bizarre world here, and I like how hilariously batshit-crazy this book can be. Like this little passage:
The knowing-eye is a weapon passed down from generation to generation in my family. My grandfather on my father’s side has it. I suspect it’s what drove my grandmother to alcoholism and sex addiction before reforming, divorcing Grandad and joining a racist commune in the Northern Cape. That and the fact that my grandfather thinks that there are giant shape-shifting crows out to get him.
Also, there are references to tokoloshe porn (Baxter caters to some very odd tastes).
The problem though, is that it does become overwhelming after a while. I really enjoyed the first half of the book, but the second half was a complete overload. New ideas, places and creatures just keep on being introduced, and the plot escalates steadily. By the time Baxter’s dealing with an impending apocalypse, his gang-war problem at the beginning is like a distant memory. There’s enough plot here for several novels, but it’s all been crammed into one.
I would preferred to spend more time exploring other aspects of the story – Baxter’s friends in the Spider, his relationship with Esmé, the strange creatures he encounters, the shadowy MK-6 organisation, the San mythology, and the Afrikaaner legends. I only got a slippery idea of how some of the fantasy and mythology fit into the plot, and I thought some of the characters – especially Esmé – were horribly flat and unfairly marginalised. Less action, more worldbuilding and character development, please.
I like the action, but I felt that some of it just goes way way overboard, especially given that Baxter is a 16-year-old boy. I can just about accept that he’s an entrepreneurial genius getting rich off a high school porn ring, but don’t expect me to believe that he’s brilliant in a hundred other ways too. Mind you, he’s not very plausible as a 16-year-old – his dialogue is too slick, he’s too badass, and he adapts too quickly. And would a 16-year-old reference a movie as old as Cocktail?
There’s one other thing that bothers me about Baxter, and it’s related to his character development. There’s a scene where someone yells at him for being “a horrible excuse for a human being” – he doesn’t care about people, he uses them, then casts them aside. Baxter kind of hangs his head and admits that this is true. The problem is that, although we’re told this about Baxter and he admits to it, we don’t really see it in his character. Obviously he’s not a nice person but he just seems like an asshole rather than a psychopath. This becomes a bit weird when we find Baxter worrying about his sanity – it’s not just his dreams and the mythological creatures that make him doubtful, but the fact that he doesn’t understand why he cares so much about Esmé. I felt that this conflict of a heartless boy finding his heart came out of nowhere.
I like Apocalypse Now Now on the whole and I think it’s an amazing debut, but I felt that it just had too many ideas crammed into it, without giving the reader enough time to really enjoy them. Reading it was like being blasted from one end of an action-packed plot to the other (culminating in a ludicrous boss fight). Everything just escalates too quickly, and too much. It’s something I can enjoy in a movie, but not in a book. It’s a bit unfortunate, I think, because Charlie Human has some brilliant ideas and a fantastic character in Baxter. There’s a sequel – Kill Baxter – due to be published later this year, and I’m curious enough to keep reading. I just hope the next book isn’t quite so insane.