8th July 2014

In Strange Worlds by Brenda Cheers

*WARNING: SPOILERS*

As a general rule, I don’t like to give away too much about the plot of a book when reviewing. However, in this case it is very difficult to say what I think needs to be said without doing so. So, you have been warned. There is already a sizeable hint in the blurb about this book on the Amazon site, and even in the title, so perhaps I am not giving too much away. The Amazon blurb says: ‘Just as Meg is about to discover the truth about this new world, she finds the rules have changed yet again, and she is back where it all began.’

Meg Atkins wakes up in hospital, after having apparently undergone a caesarean, to find everyone else in the world—including her newborn child, the rest of her family and her friends—dead from some kind of disease—or so it appears. We follow her journey as she tries to cope with this fact. She proves to be amazingly resourceful and resilient. She travels north from Melbourne, to south-east Queensland, where she seeks to make a life for herself. Eventually it becomes apparent that she is not entirely alone in the world, and is joined in her life by Luke and Connie. She also encounters Derek, a paediatrician, and some less savoury characters. Things take a strange turn when they are visited on their small farm by some strange ‘men’ who seem not quite human, and who begin to undertake some medical procedures and to monitor the health of these survivors. Throughout all this, Meg has the sense that their lives are being manipulated by someone behind the scenes, and who communicates with them via their dreams.

The narrative is written in the third person, exclusively and very intimately from the point of view of Meg. The quality of the writing is quite good here: clear, concise, straightforward. It does not rise to great literary heights, but suits the very intimate third person narrative style, which differs little from a first person narrative. Although it is third person, it really reflects Meg’s voice. This is further accentuated by the use of entries from Meg’s journal. The interweaving of straightforward narrative with journal entries, and of present events with appropriately placed elements of Meg’s back story, works well to create a clear picture of Meg. She is an interesting character. Flashbacks to her earlier life show her as somewhat weak, lacking in self-confidence and dependent. But in this new life she reveals herself to be strong, decisive and able to take drastic action when necessary without hesitation. I thought the author glossed over rather lightly the impact on Meg of waking up to find everyone dead, including her children. She is separated from her husband, with whom the children live. Her reaction upon seeing her dead daughter is not quite convincing; and she doesn’t even look in on her dead son. Yes, she gets drunk, but then seems to virtually shrug her shoulders and move on. I felt the author was in too much of a hurry to get on with the ‘serious’ part of the story.

The other characters, particularly Connie and Luke, have their moments of reality, but serve more as background against which to see Meg, rather than as real people in their own right. I ended up with the sense that people and relationships were not particularly important to Meg, and I wonder if this was the impression the author wanted to leave. I had the same feeling when she ‘woke up’ again, back in a world similar to her own real world, in which she has just given birth to a son, to which she shows an amazing indifference. Yes, I can understand that she feels no connection with this child of whom she has no recollection of having carried for nine months; but her plans to simply leave the child—and her husband to whom, in this new version of the world, she is still apparently happily married—behind make her seem very callous. Nor does she seem particularly concerned by the fact that she is unlikely to see Connie and Luke, and their four children, ever again. There is a passing reference to finding Derek, but not so much from any sense of personal connection with him as to verify the reality of the world in which she had lived for the past two or three years. I think the author needs to be careful not to sacrifice these more personal elements in favour of the probably more exciting—and easier to write—mystery/adventure elements of the story.

The plot of shifting into alternative versions of reality—parallel universes—is not at all new. There are shades of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes here, as well as episodes of TV shows such as Sliders and the Stargate franchise. In terms of this specific plot, I wondered why the author had chosen this particular parallel reality—in which everyone else suddenly mysteriously died—for the first part of this story. I found myself wondering whether this idea came first, and the author only subsequently thought of the parallel worlds idea. There were several elements that left me dissatisfied. First, I thought it extremely unlikely, based on the evidence she had, that the protagonist, Meg, would come up with this as a possible explanation for what had happened to her. Perhaps later, after two or three subsequent shifts, this idea might occur to her, but not now. Secondly, this provides no explanation at all for why the events in this world have occurred, or, indeed, what is actually going on. As an explanation for ‘why did everyone die’ or ‘who are these strange not-quite-human men’, ‘I must have slipped into a parallel universe’ is no explanation at all. This left me very frustrated. Will we ever know what was going on in that world? This is part of the problem with a series, which this will, in all likelihood, become. I know at least one sequel is on the way, if it is not already available. If the explanations for this first world later become apparent, then this is really not a series of standalone books, but one book in several volumes. This would require that I make judgements about the plot only when the entire story is told. At the moment, though, this is all I have to go on, and it left me dissatisfied. I was also disappointed that the fate of Luke and Connie was unresolved. Will we learn more about them later? I don’t know.

There is another point in the plot that concerns me. It has to do with the ‘rules’ that are operating in the world the author is creating. When Meg makes her first ‘shift’, her life in the new world is entirely continuous with her past life. Her memories are intact. There is nothing, in fact, to indicate that this is not the same world, in which something terrible has occurred. However, when she makes the second shift, back to ‘this’ world, she has no memory of her ‘current’ life in this world. Her consciousness, if you like, is that which she had before the first shift and in that previous world. After this second shift, she doesn’t know where her husband works, she doesn’t remember carrying the child. The past has changed. This, then, is a very different ‘shift’ from the first one. To be consistent, she should have woken up again in the hospital having just had a caesarean, this time into another different world: the past would be the same, but the present and future different. The author needs to have clear in her mind what rules are operating here. Already we have seen two different kinds of shifts, one where her past remains unchanged and one where it doesn’t. I was left with a sense that the author may not have thought this through, which also added to my impression that the whole world-shifting idea was only developed after the everyone-dead idea.

It should be clear why I needed to discuss the plot in some detail, because it is here that the problems lie for me. I had a few other issues with less important plot points. For instance, as someone with solar panels on the roof, I know that when the mains power fails, the solar panels won’t operate. Not so in the author’s world. I have this and a few other minor quibbles. But the more important points I have discussed speak to the coherence and consistency of the story. Not knowing whether these points will be addressed in the future makes it difficult to give a star rating. However, I am inclined to give it 3.5 stars. I think it’s slightly on the upper side of this point at the moment, so I will round it up to four stars where required.