The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack by Nate Crowley
I first encountered the mad genius that is Nate Crowley via an article on Tor.com last year. In it, the author spoke of how the ocean inspired in him a sense of both wonder and dread; his morbid (and nightmare-inducing) fascination with this topic resonated with my own, and naturally I made a beeline for both his books (featuring the dubious hero Schneider Wrack) and his social media page (there to engage him in lengthy discussions about the merits of mantis shrimps and barnacle armour).
Previously published as two separate novels (The Sea Hates a Coward and Grand Amazon) in a series titled Tomes of the Dead, Rebellion have re-released Crowley’s Chronicles of Schneider Wrack as an omnibus. Though I’m gutted about the title change (who wouldn’t be? ‘The Sea Hates A Coward’ is the most amazing title ever) I’m super glad that the publisher realised Crowley’s brilliantly quirky tale is deserving of its own brand.
She’d spent twenty years with soldiers under fire, and never felt the sense of weird, black solace as she had after a week with this lot. Every soul on the ship had come here through death, and against their will. Whether prisoners of war like her, or dissidents and criminals murdered by their own police, all had been brought back to work until they fell apart.
Wrack is a mild-mannered librarian. Mouana is a no-nonsense mercenary. Both awaken in confusion to find themselves on board a trawler, in the middle of flensing the flesh from some dead sea monster and surrounded by their fellow stumbling dead. It’s disorienting, it’s terrifying, it’s gross. It’s one of the most incredible opening sequences I’ve ever read.
From the outset it’s clear that Schneider Wrack is (among other things) a brutal, scathing condemnation of the fishing industries. Crowley’s dystopian world – where the plundering of our own ocean isn’t enough, and humanity now ventures into alien realms in an increasingly far-flung and dangerous attempt to keep feeding the capitalist machine – is not so much an exaggeration as a possibility. Just like Romero’s mindless, lifeless consumers, both the living and the dead are swept along by the tide.
As he went to pull himself upright, beneath the comforting shelter of two dozen abhuman legs, Wrack discovered it was his left arm that had taken the brunt of the fall; as he went to lever himself onto two feet, it flopped aside with a pathetic crunch and displayed six inches of shattered ulna. Rolling his eyes, he shifted his weight and used the other one to push him up. As he ascended to eye level, the zombies around him erupted into a raucous cheer like pissed mates greeting a latecomer to a pub.
Unlike Dawn of the Dead, the saga of Schneider Wrack shows us that this can be fought – and perhaps even overthrown – from within. Book one, The Sea Hates a Coward, shows the painful, gradual process of waking up, coming to terms with, and finally overcoming the overwhelming futility of knowing that one is but a single pinprick of awareness amid an entire sea of tyranny. Thankfully, Wrack isn’t completely alone.
Wrack and Mouana complement one another perfectly. She is practicality, hard-headedness and precision. He is optimism, dry humour and denial. Together, they bicker their way towards freedom from the establishment, for both themselves and on behalf of their eventual comrades.
There’s a heart-warming message about friendship and loyalty in there somewhere. Whether it’s that human emotions – the good and the bad – transcend the barriers of death; that camaraderie is more sacred and permanent than life itself; or even that there is no dignity in dying and so you might as well make the most of the time you’ve got left – is for you to decide.
Squinting down his foredeck from the first cameras through the Gate, he saw the ship’s hatchet prow surge into the world between wings of steam, wreathed in actinic filigree. Crowding its edges were dead women and men, too excited to care for the shells that still rained around them, lightning dancing across their skins. Anyone watching them would be properly shitting themselves by now, he thought.
As you can see, Crowley is a master of bathos. He’ll occasionally wax poetic with description or philosophy, ascending to heights of lyricism before swooping right back down into the ridiculous. It’s this undercurrent of dark humour that reinforces the story’s moments of humanity, which themselves are that much more precious for being so scarce.
Life and death, comedy and tragedy, war and pacifism – as everyone and everything struggles in conflict with opposing forces, so too does the narrative voice fluctuate, not just between POVs but also as each character develops. This highlights the fight for balance – or rather, to upset the balance. Wrack and the others are seeking to sow chaos amid the order, rebellion in the ranks, and every moment of humanity no matter how bathetic or ridiculous is a step in that direction. The daftest scenes feel celebratory; it’s as though every moment of ‘normality’ is a victory, always.
The atmosphere in the bar today was more raucous. For a start, the Bruiser was behind the bar—although he wasn’t much of a host. Mouana shook her head in disbelief as he ripped a pump from its mounting and held it above his head, jetting a torrent of foaming lager into and around his mouth. He emitted a strange, gurgling roar, perhaps in delight on realising that, without the need to breathe, his lungs were just two new organs in which to put drink.
The Bruiser – and the Scrimshawed Man, and Kuba, and Dust, and Aroha, and Eunice, and Teuthis – is part of a crowded and colourful palette that brightens up (and occasionally further darkens) Wrack and Mouana’s increasingly grim-looking landscape. A wonderful combination of hilarity and pathos, the secondary characters are responsible for much of the novel’s humour . . . and horror.
The Bruiser, though. Oh my. I’ll not say anything more about him except that he’s perhaps one of the most entertaining personalities to ever crawl out of somebody’s brain, and is a brilliant counterpoint to the pervading sense of threat and menace, of forces far beyond the control of mere mortals.
The monster gave a curious rumble and lights smouldered along its body, from its red-rimmed throat wattles to the tails swooping from its hindquarters. The light pulsed in jagged patterns along the behemoth; glyphs and cartouches that swam with bacterial calligraphy.
The monsters that populate Crowley’s worlds of Ocean, of Lipos-Tholos and Grand Amazon, are of impossible dimensions, and are described in such a way as to suggest a hybrid of primeval predators and technology – yet another way in which the line between man and nature, kindness and cruelty, pragmatism and nihilism, is not only blurred but redrawn.
Surreal and entertaining, The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack is a work of grotesque genius. Crowley’s debut – which can most accurately be described as Pacific Rim meets Shaun of the Dead meets Mad Max – combines horror and humour with unflinching (and probably unhealthy) relish to concoct a story that’s as thought-provoking as it is hilarious.
Wholeheartedly recommended for anyone who enjoys fun things, and I challenge you to read it without copious amounts of snorting.
Oh, and FACK OFF!
This review appeared first on Fantasy-Faction on August 10, 2017.