Book Review: London Eye
by Tim Lebbon
The first volume in Tim Lebbon’s “Toxic City” series takes place in 2019, two years after a series of attacks on London wiped out most of the city and contaminated the rest so badly that the whole place had to be sealed off from the world, its borders policed by “Capital Keepers” in full paramilitary regalia. The mysterious virus released during those attacks (one of which crippled the London Eye, as seen in Steve Stone‘s stark cover illustration), called Evolve, cost many thousands of lives – or so the official news reports said. Those outside the city were cut off, forced to spend the next two years wondering what happened to their friends and relatives on the inside.
The small group of teenagers we meet as London Eye begins – Jack, Jenna, Sparky, and Lucy-Ann – don’t believe those news reports, nor do any of the various anonymous informants who’ve been feeding them messages about the real state of things in London. All of these young heroes have lost people to what’s now popularly referred to as Doomsday, and it’s forced them to grow up well ahead of schedule (we’re casually informed on book’s third page, for instance, that 17-year-old Jack and Lucy-Anne had recently been lovers but were now more or less platonic friends).
Jack and Lucy-Anne get a message from Jenna and Sparky saying they have a “nice surprise” – they assume that the authorities are monitoring their communications, so “nice surprise” is code for “news from London” – but the couple are unprepared for what they find at Jenna’s house: it’s an older woman named Rosemary, who actually came from London, even though the teens know perfectly well nobody is allowed out of the city anymore (“They shoot the things that try! They burn them!”). And Rosemary has a further surprise: in the past two years, she and her fellow city survivors – who call themselves “Irregulars” – have begun to develop amazing powers. Jack is skeptical – so Jenna stabs him in his femoral artery. Before Lucy-Anne can throttle her for her supposed treachery, Rosemary steps forward and heals the wound almost instantly.
In addition to showing our heroes what that mysterious virus did, Rosemary also tells them horrifying stories about how Irregulars in Toxic City are hunted relentlessly by Choppers – the Irregular name for Capital Keepers – whose brutality is matched by their sadism (at one point when they catch an Irregular, they nail-gun him to the front of Harrod’s, cut out his brain, and leave the body hanging there as a warning to others). The teens are desperate to restore contact with their lost ones, and Rosemary has some hidden motives of her own, so they’re soon trekking through hidden tunnels to the heart of London – and along the way encountering some surprising threats:
“Dogs,” Lucy-Anne whispered.
“Yes,” Rosemary said. “I met them on the way out, but they were much further back, just beneath the Exclusion Zone.”
“And?” Jack said.”
“They’re wild, Jack. From London. There are packs in there, big packs.”
“We’ve heard about them,” Jenna said. All of them had drawn close, subconsciously shielding Emily from whatever danger approached.
“Some of them went down beneath the city,” Rosemary said. “The Tube, tunnels, sewers. Dogs, and …”
“Other things,” Jenna finished for her.
The sight of the shattered city is by this point bitterly familiar to Rosemary, but although her young companions have heard plenty of stories, they’ve never seen the devastation until now:
Jack could barely believe that such talent for destruction could exist in humankind.
There were buildings around the church – houses, shops, and the blocky outline of an old school. They all seemed to be abandoned. Beyond them, to the east, was a place where similar buildings had once stood. Now, there was only ruin. No wall had been left standing, and the piles of rubble, some higher than Jack’s head, disappeared into the distance. They reminded him of scenes he’d seen of the Sahara, only these dunes were of brick, slate, and stone, rather than sand.
Once the group is hunkered down in one of the many Irregular hiding places (the passivity of it all irritates Sparky, and it doesn’t sit all that well with Jack either), the ramifications of this new reality begin to break through the constantly-running constantly-fighting mental defenses of the young group. The Choppers are interested in hunting and harvesting the Irregulars in order to figure out the mechanisms of their mutations – and they’ve convinced the rest of the world to stay out of their private laboratory by repeating the popular conception that London is in lock-down quarantine. The biological element of the persecution becomes clearer and clearer to our young heroes as they meet other Irregulars and get to know Rosemary better:
Breakfast was more cold food in tin cans, but baked beans had never tasted so good. Jack wondered how the Irregulars stayed healthy without anything fresh: no vegetables, fruit, or meat. But he kept having to remind himself that they were not normal people. She’s moved on, he thought, watching Rosemary opening several large plastic bottles of water. She’s evolved, all of a sudden. Her hands moved smoothly, confidently, the patterns they made almost poetic. What must it be like to have such power? He could barely imagine.
There are deeper secrets hiding in the city’s vicious new order, including family secrets that will affect the quartet in ways they couldn’t have guessed. And on every page, at every ratcheting of the plot, Lebbon displays a sure-fire sense of plot-driven theatrics. This is as effectively planned a book as anything in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series (to which it will inevitably be compared, although it has much more in common with Michael Grant’s Gone series), with an equally stripped-down take-no-prisoners narrative sensibility, but it has a mixture of action and bittersweet sadness all its own. The whole thing of course begs to be filmed, with suitably beautiful young creatures starring as Jack and Lucy-Anne (and game old Judi Dench doing the laying on of hands as Rosemary), but readers need not wait for that.