Last week I was looking up a few of my favorite people on Twitter,¹ flitting from one to the next they way you (I) do, when I fell down the rabbit hole after one of them, and found the SFR Galaxy Awards blog.
Going down the list of books mentioned, I found several that push my oh, that sounds gooood buttons. Of course, the clickity one-clicking began.
In this particular case, the judge said something to the effect that the author does a good job writing characters who would not only consider, but make a go, of a relationship they would never had imagined…until their world pretty much ended
Since well-written mènages are one of my favorite tropes, I started on Flesh pretty much on the spot, and I’m very happy to say that it did not disappoint. Now you, poor innocent readers, get to see what I think.
Oh, in case this wasn’t clear already: this is an erotic romance, with pretty graphic sex and some strong language. Read at your own risk.
Flesh, by Kylie Scott
I don’t know whether Ms Scott has written anything else under a pseudonym, but her Fantastic Fiction page lists Flesh as her debut. If so, my hat is off to her. I do have a couple of minor quibbles with plot and world building, but they are truly minor. The writing and characterizations are very good indeed.
The story is set in Australia, after some sort of virus has spread over the land. Those infected become, for all effects and purposes, zombies. They mostly hide during the heat of the day, but come out to hunt and scavenge at night, or when something makes a loud enough noise. One bite is enough to transmit the infection, so surviving an encounter is no guarantee of, well, survival.
While at first the police and the military made an effort at containment, they were quickly overrun, and now those who have survived the apocalypse find themselves alone in a world hostile beyond their direst imaginings.
The blurb, from the author’s website:
Ali has been hiding in an attic since civilisation collapsed eight weeks ago.
When the plague hit, her neighbours turned into mindless, hungry, homicidal maniacs.
Daniel has been a loner his entire life. Then the world empties and he realises that being alone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Finn is a former cop who is desperate for companionship, and willing to do anything it takes to protect the survivors around him.
When the three cross paths they band together; sparks fly, romance blooms in the wasteland and Ali, Daniel and Finn bend to their very human needs in the ruins of civilisation.
Lust, love and trust all come under fire in Flesh as the three battle to survive, hunted through the suburban wastelands.
The story is told from the three main characters’ points of view, in alternating chapters. It’s deep enough point of view that each character’s voice comes through, which I very much appreciated.
As the novel starts, it’s been less than two months since the virus that makes people into, well, basically zombies, has spread throughout Australia. There is not a lot of detail beyond the immediate–which frustrated me a little, but which makes sense. If the social and, shortly after, technological infrastructure breaks down in a matter of days, it’s perfectly plausible to have large swaths of a continent insulated from each other.
So far, Alison has survived by sheer blind luck. She’s had access to some food and a little water, and a fairly impregnable refuge in the barred and locked down house of one of her neighbors. Part of her knows that her situation is reaching a breaking point, but most of her exists in a state of terror that allows for little to no rational thought.
In one of her periodic forays outside, during the blinding light and sweltering head of day, she’s caught by another survivor. Her first reaction is one hundred percent panic, no thought. Being alone has kept her safe–from both the infected and the uninfected alike. The memory of uninfected neighbors becoming lawless savages within days of the outbreak is still fresh for Ali after all.
Eventually, she calms down enough to think. Even as he tries to subdue her, this man has not hurt her. And it makes sense that she cannot continue as she has so far. Even if she continues to dodge a bite, the dangers of other survivors, probably not as decent as this one, grows as time goes by. Add to that limited access to water or other supplies, and the decision has been made for her, by the circumstances.
In his own way, Daniel is as trapped as Ali. While we don’t learn as much of his own struggles since the break out, it’s plain that it has not been easy for him, that he’s seen and done things that do weight on his conscience. He is a realist and doesn’t let guilt or regret drag him down too much, though. There is in him a deep well of optimism and his survival instinct is very strong.
Dan is beyond ecstatic to find Ali. Not only is she the first uninfected he’s come across pretty much since the plague started, but she hits all his boy-likes-girl buttons. Which set him to start planning for something beyond immediate survival.
First step, get the hell away from the city and the suburbs. Greater population concentration meant faster spread of the virus, so going somewhere rural seems like a better bet for long term survival. Grabbing a vehicle and finding enough gas to power it, no problem. Even some non-essential survival supplies *coughcondomscough* are not hard to find. Supermarkets and drugstores are basically non-perishable goods repositories open to those who still possess brain functions.
The only problem is, moving puts them in unknown territory, and as Ali well knows, not all of the survivors are decent people now, no matter who they were before. Fecal matter promptly meets the aeration device, and things would have ended badly for both of them, had Finn not intervened pretty much in the nick.
Finn has followed the pair for a couple of days. He’s starving for human company, but has not dared approach them yet. As a cop, he was never naïve to the ways of desperate people. Given what he has seen and done since the world went crazy, he is existing pretty much at DEFCON1. While he is immediately attracted to Ali, he feels protective of both her and Dan. To him, they seem to represent hope for normality and decency in the middle of chaos.
Circumstances, in the form of a gang of armed and woman hungry asshats, force his hand.
They survive the subsequent game of cat and mouse more by luck fueled by steely determination, than by actual skill, but survive they do. Soon, the alliance forced on the three of them for survival’s sake becomes something more. Part of the change in the dynamics between the three is forced by the circumstances, but the writing structure allows the reader to understand, well before Ali, that the guys’ feelings for her go deeper than the fact that she’s the only female around.
For the time being, that is.
If the world hadn’t gone apeshit on them, and the three had met under normal circumstances, the attraction between Ali and Dan, and Ali and Finn, would have been there. I never doubted that Ali and Dan would have become a couple regardless of how they met. The inclusion of Finn in that relationship would be s a tougher sell for me. It is a testament to Ms Scott’s writing that I bought it at all under these circumstances.
I really like Dan. Of all the characters in the book, he comes across as the most well-adapted (best-adapted?). He has seen the world as he knew it end, has figured out pretty quickly that a new order has begun, and that who he was and how he behaved in the past must stay in the past if he aims to survive at all. And now that he’s found the one thing he knows he can’t live without, he aims to thrive.
Daniel’s decision to encourage Ali to have a secondary relationship with Finn is eminently logical. He wants Ali safe, no matter the cost to himself. Having a trained cop on their side is a huge step in that direction, which he doesn’t hesitate to take.
The way Daniel is written, this is not a stretch at all. He wants Ali for himself, but he truly wants her alive and well and happy far more than his own happiness. His motives to push Ali towards Finn–to, in a sense, buy the guy’s allegiance–are complicated and not necessarily pure, but they make sense in the context of the story. Dan’s reaction to this necessity fits perfectly with who he is.
Sharing was not in his nature, but nature would have to adapt. Ali needed this kid. Finn was a modern day gunslinger. Deep down, he fucking hated it, but his girl needed this one nice and close. Preferably wrapped around her finger and deeply concerned about her health and happiness.
Every goddamn minute of every goddamn day would be best.
Ali is the one who grows the most in the story–which, in a book about zombies and a mènage may sound weird, but actually happens. Ms Scott describes Ali’s reactions as rabbit-like, and shows the reader her constant fight to overcome overwhelming fear in order to function. Having first Daniel and then Finn to care about, saves Ali’s sanity in a very real way. Her focus changes from the immediate, both in time and her person, to something outside, more far reaching.
Each step into trust, of Daniel, of Finn, and of herself, is a struggle for Ali. Some of this stems from events before the plague, but it’s those two months spent alone and terrified that make opening up to hope the hardest. In the end, though, Ali is a survivor through and through, and she adapts to their new circumstances well, if not necessarily easily.
All the reassurances a girl could ask for. There had to be a catch. But what if there wasn’t? What if everything he said was exactly how things could be and she was to rabbit-hearted to reach out and grab him?
Finn is a decent guy who has been dumped into an extremely shitty situation. Beyond zombies and the violent gangs of uninfected, he now find himself craving another man’s woman–a decent man and a decent woman too. The temptation to do something more than wait for circumstances to drop Ali on his lap is great.
I like that Ms Scott didn’t shy away from that, or from giving Finn his own insecurities as far as the three-way relationship is concerned. As a cop and protector, he knows exactly where he stands. Finn’s confidence in his own skills is well placed, so his reaction to Ali–and to Dan’s existence–give him a believable weakness. All in all, though, his is the least developed character of the three.
Disappointment had a taste, and it sat on the back of his tongue, hot and sour as acid, making him sick. He truly fucking hated himself for feeling it. No one had canceled Christmas. A man had survived. Bad had been trampled. Al’s heart remained unbroken.
This was a god thing. A good thing. Yeah.
He just needed a minute to catch his breath and find his happy face.
In the end, all three of them have to make adjustments and concessions and decide, in the cold light of day, whether they want to stay together when other options become open to them. This is, of course, not the only challenge they face, but how they deal with what comes next hinges on their decision to stick with each other.
I read Flesh pretty much in one long sitting, racing to the end. I liked the challenge presented by the town in the second half of the story, and that there was some exploration of the practicalities of such a place. People tend to revert to type after a catastrophe. Some immediately, some take longer, but the petty politics of community reassert themselves eventually.
There is some extraneous conflict later in the story, more to do with the general state of the world than Dan’s, Ali’s and Finn’s relationship, and it opened interesting possibilities for future stories. I had some questions regarding some of the shenanigans, though, because they didn’t actually make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, discussing them specifically is totally spoilery as these happen in the last quarter of the story. Suffice it to say, unless the answer is ‘because O was both a psycopath and irrational’ the motivations are obscure.
On the romance front, I believe these three have a good chance to make a go of it in this new brave world, though I confess I could have done without the epilogue for a number of reasons.
I am curious about the world Ms Scott built and will likely read the next two stories in the series at some point soon.² Flesh gets an 8.00 out of 10.
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¹ Until recently, I hadn’t realized that a person doesn’t need a twitter account to follow a good chunk of what’s going on there. Slow, I am.
² I had hoped the next title, Skin, would involve Erin and the two militia guys, and find myself a tad disappointed it doesn’t.