Reviewed by Annabel
No Dominion is the concluding part of Louise Welsh’s Plague Times Trilogy – a dystopian tale of a pandemic and its aftermath. Although Welsh asserts in the Q&A we did (see here) that you can read the novels in any order, I think you’d probably want to read one or other, or both, of the first two before this one.
In the first volume, A Lovely Way to Burn, the pandemic which will become known as the ‘Sweats’ takes hold. We follow the experiences of Stevie, a shopping channel presenter, as she struggles to find out what happened to her medic boyfriend who is murdered at the same time as the Sweats begin.
The action in the second part, Death is a Welcome Guest, which I previously reviewed for Shiny (see here), happens at the same time as in the first, but we have an entirely different cast of characters and experience. Magnus, a Scottish comedian is our lead and after being wrongly imprisoned, he escapes when the Sweats take hold in jail, and sets off from London for home – which is Orkney.
***This is where you should leave us, if you’d rather not find out what happens in the third part which is set seven years later. ***
No Dominion’s prologue sets the scene for the main theme of this concluding novel:
Seven of the children on the Orkney mainland were survivors of the Sweats. Each of them was billeted with a foster parent who was usually, though not always, the person who had found them. […]
When the adults worried, as some of them occasionally did, that they had let the children down, they consoled themselves with the thought that you could not miss what you had never had. And there were still plenty of books in the library that would, in time, teach them what they wanted to know. The adults did not foresee that there would be a price to pay for keeping the children ignorant.
That’s the problem with teenagers. They’re full of hormones and rebellion; they experience first love; they soon want to get away and spread their wings.
Magnus made it home, took up crofting and became one of the seven foster parents. As the novel begins, he is arguing with Bjarne, foster parent to Willow, who is warning Magnus to keep his son Shuggie away from her. Bjarne is big, full of himself, running for election to the Orcadian Council – against Stevie, who also made it to this island haven. A born organiser, she has been running the New Orcadian Council well for some time now.
The Orcadians, new and old are rightly proud of their set-up. The islands weren’t immune from the Sweats – they had to abandon Kirkwall, and now work out of Stromness. They use another nearby island as a quarantine site. When a boat carrying three strangers arrives one night, the island is put to use. Magnus recognises, and perhaps unwisely, vouches for the woman of the group, he’d met Belle on his journey north.
Then everything goes wrong all at once. Magnus had been worried about Willow with Bjarne though, and Stevie agrees to ask the girl to stay with her for a while. Stevie misses the rendezvous to pick up Willow and Magnus discovers Bjarne murdered. A group of the teenagers are missing, and so is Evie, the first baby to be born on the Island for years. The strangers are gone too.
The story now changes to a chase and road trip as Stevie and Magnus follow the trail of the strangers and alienated teens who had been lured with tales of a more fun life in Glasgow.
As we know from the first two novels, Magnus and Stevie are resourceful and strong, although Magnus has a tendency to be overemotional. Their quest to find the missing adolescents will lead them into danger repeatedly. From the Highland lairds who are setting up a new feudal society to the aptly named ‘Petrol Brothers’ who control the remaining fuel in the area, Magnus and Stevie will need all their skills and wiles to stay alive.
Stevie rediscovers the supressed violence inside that had saved her before, and as they make their way south, encountering more groups who are only in it for themselves, the body count mounts. They encounter horror after horror, but what keeps them going are reports of Shuggie, Willow and the baby.
An obvious reference point for this trilogy all the way through has been Terry Nation’s 1970s TV series Survivors, as Welsh acknowledges. No Dominion feels particularly close to his vision of a post-pandemic world trying to find its feet ranged against all those psychopaths who would take advantage.
It is a thrilling road trip. I was reminded of Buchan’s The 39 Steps, in which his hero Richard Hannay goes on the run in the Highlands, using every ounce of his guile to evade those following him. Stevie and Magnus are the chasers not the chased, but the spirit of adventure that Buchan did so well is present here too, albeit with more death and destruction along the way.
The conclusion when it comes brings this fantastic trilogy of what The Guardian calls ‘apoca-lit’ to a fitting end. We know what happened to everyone, enough ends are tied up, but we fittingly can’t see into their futures. We know then, what we’d like to happen – whether it does is a matter of hope, and that is something that all the Plague Times survivors need.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Louise Welsh, No Dominion (John Murray, 2017) ISBN 9781848546578, hardback, 384 pages.
BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)