Charlie Human's urban fantasy Apocalypse Now Now could be tentatively labeled as a "Young Adult" book, a stiff nod in the direction of the more recent Harry Potter titles. Certainly, it comes with all the hallmarks of the genre: an enterprising teen, an impossible destiny exceeding the protagonist's wildest imaginations, a cabal of supporting adults, and a handful of adolescent problems. But while the genre as a whole does not necessarily shy away from difficult material, Apocalypse Now Now, reeking of grit and magic, sometimes feels like it's on a calculated safari, a quest to be as edgy and inappropriate for possible.
The protagonist is a sixteen-year-old named Baxter Zevcenko, a manipulative teenager who sees the schoolyard as a battlefield, his cohorts as tools, and pornography as business instead of idle recreation. He is an abrasive, arrogant personality with an uncomfortable propensity for violence and casual malice, which is encapsulated in his interactions with his autistic brother Rafe.
From experience I know I only have seconds to inflict as much damage as possible before my mother comes to break us up. I snarl and hiss with rage as I jackhammer my fists into his kidneys and he struggles violently. It's not enough, but at least it's something. (p. 4)
Cape Town through the lens of Baxter's cynical gaze is a bleak, visceral setting ("The sky is almost the exact gray of the diseased lung of a two-packs-a-day smoker"), filled with graffiti and grime, a raw mix of wealth and poverty that is borderline. A canal running through Baxter's neighborhood probably represents this dichotomy of characteristics best.
One thing I love about the canal is its honesty; like a sick, swollen artery beneath the Botox of suburbs. The homeless wash here listening to the sounds of rich people frolicking in their garden jacuzzis. Through the windows, you can see lawyers watching TV or bankers furtively looking at PornTube, while drunks have sex in the long grass that borders that canal. (p. 41)
Nonetheless, there is one ray of light in Baxter's life: Esme, his kleptomaniac girlfriend. His affection for her borders on reverence, and while Baxter lacks the vocabulary to gracefully articulate his feelings for Esme, the intensity of it bleeds into his every thought of her.
Something about the combination of the light in the subway, her smell and her closeness does something to me. Time compresses into this single point. My chest feels strange and I can’t think. (p. 8)
My heart cracks like a honeycomb splitting and drips thick gooey love into my chest. You know when you're a little kid and you think clouds are soft and smooth and you dream of rolling around in the sky on them? That's what making out with Esme feels like. (p. 44)
His world shatters when Esme is kidnapped and Baxter finds himself suspected of being the Mountain Killer, the serial murderer who may have disappeared with the love of Baxter's life. Driven by terror for his girlfriend and visions of dead people, Baxter takes off in pursuit, and quickly finds himself integrated into Cape Town's sorcerous underbelly. Human spares no expense in building a world both terrible and wondrous, dancing from one grisly spectacle to the next with an almost child-like glee. The Flesh Palace is particularly memorable. Zombies strippers sinuously peel the flesh from their bones, while ecstatic customers urge ghouls to devour their living flesh, even as members of South Africa's elite partake in a cannibalistic feast.
Gert van Zyl, musician, actor, and reality game show presenter is gingerly scooping brains from a severed human head on a silver platter.
Politicians are delicately sucking the marrow out of dismembered pinkie fingers, and several members of the national cricket team sip congealed blood from martini glasses. (p. 148)
Apocalypse Now Now's breakneck pacing comes with a price. Any slackening in momentum feels like a jarring break. About midway through the book, for example, we encounter Dr. Pat and the Haven, which harbors a bestiary of creatures taken straight from Africa's fecund mythologies. Although rife with genuinely fantastic critters ("The woman's body splits in half like a giant mouth, revealing a row of serrated fangs"), it is difficult to not feel as though Human might have taken the easy way out here, making for a wasted opportunity. The protagonist, along with the readers, are taken on a literal tour of the sanctuary, and sequentially introduced to its inhabitants in an almost mechanical manner. The sojourn to the Haven ends with a frustratingly convenient encounter with a key character, one that could have been, in all honestly, more elegantly delivered.
Similarly problematic is the book's portrayal of Katinka, a member of the Osiraii, a race who function much like the Nordic valkyrie. Baxter calls her "the most beautiful transsexual" he has ever seen, a cringe-inducing line given the trans community's general view of the term. It could be argued that it was a conscious decision on Human's part to enforce Baxter's rough-edged nature, or even possibly a linguistic quirk unique to Cape Town, but I found myself wondering if there might have been a more tactful way of accomplishing this.
Equally distressing is the fact that dark-skinned Katinka is initially depicted as a "body entrepreneur," a working girl with a plethora of mannerisms and verbal tics that brings to mind negative stereotypes associated with trans people. To Human's credit, Katinka does evolve into a more complex character later on, but that doesn't take away from the discomfiting first impression.
There is a sprinkling of other more minor faults. Dialogue, for example, is frequently slightly cliched, slightly pulpy, with prone towards bouts of awkward exposition. Characters, while not necessarily one dimensional, are sometimes a little too set in their archetypes. And there is a strong sense that Human occasionally enjoys shocking the reader for the sake of shocking. Still, that doesn't stop Apocalypse Now Now from being genuinely imaginative, a C-grade slasher film spearheaded by a big-name director, a heady acid trip that steals from the dreams of Young Adult books, MTV, and trashy '80s horror novels. When the book crescendos with some genuinely bewildering situations, it's hard to not want to shrug off Apocalypse Now Now's problems, grab hold, and just revel in the wild ride.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the sequel Kill Baxter, which is a far nastier specimen compared to its predecessor. The book opens several months after the events of Apocalypse Now Now, with a sullen Baxter attending his fifth session of Pornography Anonymous. Despite his courageous actions, Baxter is far from a venerated figure, a fact he is bitterly conscious of:
I should be a hero. I should be interviewed by newspapers, I should be considering competing offers by publishers and establishing a healthy social media following by being retweeted by minor celebrities. I should have my own meme, for fuck's sake. (p .6)
His life is in shambles. Baxter, according to his internal monologue, has been shuttling between psychologists, diagnosed with virtually every neurological condition in imagination, and required to consume a "rainbow spectrum of drugs" for his own benefit. But, he perseveres, of course, out of pride and his all-encompassing love for Esme. Having said that, Baxter remains, as always, an anti-hero balanced on the knife's edge of loathsomeness.
I itch like a junkie to manipulate people. My puppetmaster's fingers tingle for the strings. Oh lord, just one more hit of that sweet, sweet strategy.
The lines above also represent one of my biggest issues with Kill Baxter: Human's insistence on informing the reader that Baxter is addicted to manipulation. At times, he even eschews subtlety in favor of repeatedly bludgeoning the reader with the concept. But the heavy-handedness pales in comparison to the sheer repetitiveness of the idea. Over and over, we are told that Baxter needs to toy with others, that his embattled conscience is constantly warring with its lust for control, until there is no room to envision the inner conflict on our own.
Take an eye, take a kidney, but please don't take my beautiful manipulations . . .
I've fallen off the wagon already. I've manipulated Kyle and I hate myself for it. I realize that it's not just the big manipulations I have to stop. It's the small ones too.
While Apocalypse Now Now only alluded to similarities to Harry Potter, Kill Baxter feels like a more active attempt at paralleling the universe that J. K. Rowling constructed. Shortly after visiting a market filled with Hidden Ones, the blanket term for the book's ecosystem of magical races, Baxter is enlisted to attend Hexpoort, Kill Baxter's answer to Hogswart. There is even a mandatory train scene, where Baxter is slowly acquainted with the supporting cast, many of whom come across as nightmare versions of Harry Potter characters.
Hekka, for one, feels very much like Draco Malfoy, swaggering and cocksure, with an incisive understanding of what his privileges are. That said, Hekka is also an intriguing character of his own. It is purportedly his destiny to save the world but where most heroes might evidence a nest of good traits, Hekka is nothing but self-aware unpleasantness.
He engineers all these little situations where he comes across as the noble underdog in class. I saw him fucking plotting them out on an Excel document.
Next, we have Nom, good-natured orphan, reverse Ron Weasley, and a member of the Broken Teeth clan, one of the three student organizations operating within Hexpoort. ("Carrion control most of the porn, we have the best alcohol and drugs, and Pondscum are like the enforcers"). Conjoined twins Faith and Chastity, confident and gifted at magic, complete the trifecta by functioning as almost-Hermiones.
Kill Baxter's treatment of Faith and Chastity, much like Apocalypse Now Now's treatment of Katinka, is something I found troubling. The first encounter with the twins is deeply voyeuristic: Baxter catches a glimpse of them in bed with an unnamed, "white-arsed" lover, exhibitionists engaged in a threesome. A few passages later, they're revealed to be conjoined twins, one a cheerleader armed with a pom-pom, the other a blade-wielding goth, and promptly declared "freaks" by Hekka and his cohorts.
The "proper introduction" between Baxter and the conjoined twins is equally frustrating, with appallingly clichéd lines such as these:
"I'm Faith," the cheerleader says. "And my sister here is Chastity. It's a bit like calling a big guy 'Tiny'."
"Screw you, ho-bag," Chastity says.
"Biologically impossible, otherwise I'm sure you would have tried already," Faith replies.
"Nice to meet you, Baxter." Faith smiles.
"Oooh, she likes you." Chastity says. "Why don't you two kiss? I don't mind. I'll let you use my half of the body. I may even try to get in a grope myself."
It could have been better. Again, it could be argued that we're seeing Faith and Chastity through a teenage lens, that the two are adolescents playing up to familiar tropes, but their characterization left me with a sour tang in my mouth.
Putting that aside, Baxter's journey into Hexpoort is intoxicating. Human takes care to upend so many of the cornerstones of sorcerous training. The head of the institution is neither male nor delicate. The Red Witch is shockingly powerful, a muscular woman who permits no insolence. Shadow Boer, her second-in-command, is "large and beefy" with an "epic handlebar mustache" and an overpowering belief that virtually nothing in a student's sorcerous armament can compare to being physically strong. And so, he trains them. Hard. He instructs the rabble on a medley of martial art skills and endless labor. Baxter is quickly transformed into a muscular version of himself, and his puzzled distaste over the metamorphosis is a pleasure to read.
My finely tuned skills are atrophying. I've worked for years for the stamina and multitasking ability to watch two seasons of a series in one night while following the public destruction of a celebrity on social media and crowd-solving a terrorist attack on Reddit. I was a perfectly interface between man and machine. Now, I'm just becoming buff.
Baxter eventually acquires an animal companion, an old, one-eyed Draken who can only be described as short-tempered and terrifying. He also obtains knowledge of his own remarkability, after he is pegged as a Dreamwalker, a rare class of magic-users that normally calls to mind tranquil shamans or stoned hippies as opposed to ex-porn kings. This ties quite neatly with his discovery of Psychosexual Development, a funk band comprised of anthropomorphic manifestations of Baxter’s libidinal phases.
But, there is only so much scene-setting and pop-culture references that one book can wallow in. Eventually, the action ramps up in a spectacular fashion, ending in a bloodbath of epic proportions. The school is besieged by nefarious powers, and Baxter finds himself embroiled in a life-and-death struggle before being whisked away to embark on a Quest. The pace, already so frantic, accelerates even further here. Together with his mentor Ronin, Baxter is thrust head-first into a swamp of conspiracies, secrets, tense alliances, and ravenous faeries. The book positively shrieks through its final quarter, spewing wild encounters and rampant violencen like so much confetti, sometimes losing its cohesiveness but never its own bawdy understanding of fun.
Overall, Charlie Human's books remind me of teenagers walking on the wrong side of the law, raw and dangerous, sometimes even clumsy, but not completely without that scrap of youthful innocence. The sheer quantity of sex and violence, along with the sometimes tactless depictions of certain characters, are likely to make this series an unappealing fit for many. But for those willing to embrace the books' shortcomings? Baxter's adventures could prove to be a dark, indulgent journey that ends with an odd taste on the tongue in the morning.
Cassandra Khaw writes for the Verge during the day, and spends the rest of her time gobbling up speculative fiction and writing the companion novel for Codemancer. She also cooks and obsesses about cats, turtles, and other creatures that can be turned into adorable plushies.