Those Who Walk in Darkness, by John Ridley

those-who-walk-in-darkness-by-john-ridley coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Warner Books
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by Fraser Ronald

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I really didn’t know what to make of John Ridley’s Those Who Walk In Darkness when I started it. It had superheros in it (though not going by that name). It was a contemporary (or at least near-future) setting. I figured it’d be some kind of comic book in novel format, which was fine. I was a big comic fan when they were $1.25 (Canadian) each. During my time in university, the price got beyond the point I was willing to pay. I figured this book would be a little nostalgic trip to a form of story-telling I enjoyed.

Well, I enjoyed this book — a lot — but it has nothing to do with nostalgia for comic books and superheros. I enjoyed this book because John Ridley offers a host of compelling characters (none of them in tights) forced into the kind of grey areas of morality and extreme margins of opinion that are all too common in the world I read about in the newspapers. I believed this story. Even with flying and mind control, these people live in the same world as you or I, a world that doesn’t have a handbook to distinguish right from wrong, where even good people do bad things and where there is no understanding the vagaries of fate or violence.

In the setting of Those Who Walk In Darkness, metanormals are outlawed in the United States. They have been told to get out, go to Europe where people still like you. Those who do not leave the country, even if they do not use and control their power, have a death sentence hanging over their head. The police follow the letter of the law, but confrontation usually ends with the death of the metanormal, even if a few police officers die first.

The story centers on Soledad O’Roark, a young police officer who has recently joined M-Tac–the Metanormal Tactical Unit. In her first encounter with a metanormal — a ‘freak’ — she uses an unlicensed and untested weapon. Though the weapon proves a success, Soledad gets a grilling for it and is suspended from M-Tac. But this isn’t the end for Soledad, because she hates freaks.

I’m not going to tell anymore, because that would take all the fun out of it. Soledad’s story, however, intertwines with the story of a group of the freaks, unable — due to poverty — to escape the United States. The stories of both the freaks and the cops are tragic. The ties that bind these two groups together are tangible, compelling and understandable. They are also the reason for an escalation of the conflict. Revenge becomes a motivator on both sides. What good could possibly come from that?

If I had to compare this to a comic book, the inevitable ones that might be mentioned would be the Watchmen or the Dark Knight Returns. There are fragments of the Legends mini-series from DC. However, for me, the comic this most closely resembled, in tone and texture, would be V for Vendetta. This is a dystopian future, far from the electric cars and airships of the Watchmen. The freaks have no allies, no one who cheers them on, as Batman had in the Dark Knight Returns. And there is no outside force that is influencing the general population to scorn — or outright hate — the metanormals, as in Legends. No, the hatred, fear and isolation comes from the baser side of human emotions, the fear of the different and the prejudice it engenders. This dystopia, though it is much closer to the world we live in now, has many similarity to the facist Great Britain of V for Vendetta.

While the story is dark, it is not depressing. Still, there is little hope. The hope is on a personal level, for the characters and their lives rather than for the tragedy inherent in the setting. Even the personal hopes are touched by the tragic flaws necessary in such a drama. The ending is a testament to Mr. Ridley’s vision. When the foreshadowing came–which was close enough to the end so as not to ruin the surprise–I saw where the story would lead, but not in a definitive that lessened tension or interest. The tone of the book carries through, which I felt was important so as not to cheapen anything that came before.

Overall, I would recommend this book most highly to those who enjoyed dark, dystopian comics like V for Vendetta, the Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns. I would also suggest that this book will appeal to those who enjoy stories of a near-future dystopia, though not in a cyber-punk sense, as this book does not delve into the realm of cyberspace. Most readers of science fiction or action/adventure will enjoy this book simply because it is well-written, has compelling characters and a couple of excellent action set-pieces. Definitely a worthy addition to anyone’s personal library.

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