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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Coffle

13th Feb, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Coffle (Dim Shores chapbook) was released in 2017 in a limited edition of 200 copies. According to the publisher's website it's long sold out, so I guess if you want a copy you need to start searching online and be prepared to pay over and above the original asking price, or hold fire until author Gemma Files includes it in a collection.

The story is set in a grim post-apocalyptic future where slavery has been re-established and only low level technology is available. Ardenne is an escaped slave who leads other fugitives to the safety of Sanctuary, but to reach this place each group must cross The Patch, a wasteland of sand and rock, where the ground is poison and saturated with nanites that bring the dead back to life. The latest group she is leading travels as a coffle, all tied to a rope to keep them together and functioning as a unit. En route they encounter the young girl Bess, a fugitive living in The Patch who joins their group, though Ardenne is suspicious of her back story. Bess causes friction in the group, undermining Ardenne's leadership, but this is only the tip of a substantial iceberg regarding the threat she represents.

The setting here is rather simple and, indeed, more than a tad familiar, The Patch bringing to mind, among others, such undesirable real estate as the Forbidden Zone in the original Planet of the Apes franchise. Files does a more than competent job of making it feel credible though, with the way in which she avoids giving an explanation for the reintroduction of slavery and the apocalypse itself adding to the sense of verisimilitude. The author gives us plenty of bang for our buck on the action front too, with a selection of monsters on the rampage, from nanite driven zombies to vicious slave catchers on their mean machines, with personality clashes in the coffle itself helping to crank up the tension.

As regards the latter, rich characterisation is a big part of what makes the book work so well. Ardenne is the perfect example of what it means to be a hero, somebody who has won freedom for herself, but is not satisfied with that, feels morally obliged to do whatever she can to help others escape, even at risk of her own freedom, even though the cost to others is high and a yoke she too must bear. You could argue that, if she had had the right master, slavery might have been an easier way for Ardenne, but her sense of self requires her to make the hard choice. The same could be said for other members of the coffle, especially Heba who is risking all so that her child will be born free. Others such as Reed are easily beguiled by Bess and distrustful of everyone else, even Ardenne, not appreciating her sacrifice, expecting treachery. Bess is the most interesting character, an outsider and a monster by her actions, but at the same time just somebody doing the best she can to survive. Her dialogue sparkles and in scenes with Ardenne the two women seem like opposite poles of the same thing.

Underlying it all is an abhorrence of the slavers and an awareness of the high price that must be paid for freedom, the risks that must be taken. At the end realpolitik is key, a recognition that compromises need to be made, that some have to be sacrificed for a nebulous greater good. Ardenne and Heba are uneasy with this option, and some readers may well find their solution to the threat Bess poses unpalatable. They accept though that it is the best they can hope for in the imperfect world of The Patch. Ultimately this is a book that, rather than gifting us with some wishy washy happy ever after ending, presents the case for making do, about changing what we can and accepting what we cannot, finding a way to work round whatever obstacles are placed in the way. And as far as that goes it feels more real, more genuine. Kudos to the author for the pragmatism she confers on her characters.




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