Without Warning by John Birmingham


Book of the Year 2008 (see all)

March 14, 2003. In Kuwait, American forces are lock and loaded for the invasion of Iraq. In Paris, a cover agent is close to cracking a terrorist cell. And just north of the equator, a sailboat manned by a drug runner and a pirate is witness to the unspeakable. In one instant, all around the world, everything will change. A wave of inexplicable energy slams into the continental United States. America as we know it vanishes. As certain corners of the globe erupt in celebration, others descend into chaos, and a new, soul-shattering reality is born.

Without Warning is next to The Aylesford Skull one of the kick-off books of this years Titan Books line up. Though both books are completely different in set up and genre they both add a lot of value to the line up of the growing list of Titan repertoire. Later this spring for both series the last two books will also be published, and if they are just as good as the predecessors, Titan Books is in for a good year!

Without Warning is the second series of books written by John Birmingham, but it set in a whole new universe. Similarly to my reason of wanting to read the The Aylesford Skull is that these end-of-the-world stories are some of the stories that I have not had the chance to fully explore yet, with such a rich fantasy genre it is impossible to indulge in everything. But Without Warning delivers more than I expected and packs a powerful, realistic punch.

The story is set in early 2003, when an unexplainable force hits the centre of the United States. The story starts in a hospital with a rather mild scene, but with a very catchy starting phrase: “The killer awoke, surrounded by strangers” and immediately from this point onwards I got that sort of spy feeling of the book. This was followed by a rather abrupt change of scene and you meet one of the important characters and one of the many viewpoints of this book, James Kipper. You meet him firstly in the Washington area. He gets called in for an emergency and witnesses a horrible event, but can not make head nor tails of it. Though Kipper plays and important part there are also many other characters that slowly lead this story forwards. I mentioned already two of the many storyline: there is a storyline centring around events occurring in Paris France, Seattle Washington, Guantanamo Bay Cuba and Acapulco. Three of these places are on the border of the unexplainable wave and the storyline of Paris deals on its own with the consequences of the wave.

For me the combination of two things really made this story a highlight of my day. Combining the many perspectives of the different locations in the world and telling the story in three phases namely: First day, One Week and One Month. In the epilogue this is again repeated similarly with One Day, One Week and One Year. Like I said I really like this setting. The trauma that is introduced in Without Warning does not seem to only affect one part of the world but shows that many different places are affected shown by the many storylines. Take the Middle East for example, the US army located there is suddenly without command and they get to find out the hard way, this is shown together with uprisings of the local population. In Paris where you get to meet Caitlin, the world turns upside down and turns into utter chaos. Other lands like the UK are closing their borders to immigrants. And in Seattle, which is on the border of the wave the events were for me the most realistic as you see James Kipper and his family coping with all the events that start to unravel over time. Talking about this latter part the “time” aspects really gave another dimension on top of the different locations, for me it was not moving too fast nor too slow but instead it really produced and eerie feeling on how governments and countries start to fall apart and even how people start rioting in the streets to get the last foodstuffs out of the supermarket, even going as far as having a shoot out on the parking lot. It is by this combination of both the time and locations that you truly get to experience how the world is slowly spiralling out of control.

Another small point to be made is that not looking at the time and space division but also at the individual stories that take place in each of the locations. They are actually quite compelling and though they follow a similar trend in developing a chaotic scene it is due to the individuals that they each get a unique feel to them. One of the best examples that I can give is like I mentioned, Kipper’s story, who, as a pretty rock solid guy tries to prevent a whole town from descending into chaos while doing his best to support his family. Since his town of Seattle is on the border of the wave you see the inhabitants first hoarding goods and later turning to riots which leads to army protection and even then some of the riots take the lead and it turns pretty violent. And in the midst of it all you see his wife Barbara and their daughter trying to make the best of it. Another storyline that turns upside down is that of Jules. She and Pete directly witness the wave hitting and since they are aboard a ship this was actually another one of my favourite storylines. Being in open waters and docking added a lot of peril to their journey. Like the occurrence of pirates and how they have to fight them of, but also not knowing what they might expect once they hit land.

And lastly there is one aspect that is not lacking. Technology, even though the wave hit and took out maybe 90-95% of North America there is still enough tech around. Not only computers and phones and the like, but you also have your fighter planes and your nuclear warheads. Now with a superpower removed some of the rules might be less strictly lived by. These linger threats and possible trigger happy fingers of some countries kept me on the edge of my seat wondering if a nuclear war might have been in the making. I really liked that there was a small emphasis on this part as well because the general idea behind this book is “What if?” and it neatly reflects this in the removal of the one superpower that is somewhat now policing the world. A world without America at its core.

All in all, Without Warning is a gripping, edge of your seat stuff that you can easily read instead of going to the cinema to watch an action movie, it is delivered right there in front of you. This book never goes dull for a moment and actually puts you to thinking “What if?” The thought experiment of John Birmingham has paid out fully. And it leaves you on quite the cliff-hanger, another great book to be recommended.

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