About a quarter of the way through Defenders, Oliver Bowen – a CIA operative – is transported in a submarine to a secret base on Easter Island. There he’s introduced to the Defenders, genetically engineered super soldiers, seventeen foot tall with three legs and a mastery of tactics who have been born and bred to save humanity from an invading force of starfish shaped aliens. The Luytens (those would be the aliens) began their invasion of Earth a few years previously and due to their technological dominance, and a happy knack of reading the mind of any human within an eight mile radius, they’ve been winning the war. Since their arrival, an estimated three billion or so people have been killed. The Defenders are seen as humanities only chance for survival. Not only are they tall and fast and experts in military strategy, the Defenders also lack serotonin, the key neurotransmitter that allows the Luytens to know what we’re thinking.
It’s an intriguing enough set-up and McIntosh does an excellent job in treating the war between humanity and the Luytens as more a slaughter than a fair fight between two equal forces. There’s a number of harrowing moments where we see the starfish in action, killing soldiers and civilians alike just because they can predict exactly what that person intends to do. In particular, there’s one frightening scene where thousands of people, evacuating Atlanta, become sitting ducks for the Luytens on the highway leading out of town. As our hero, Lila, and her father run for their lives, we are provided with a glimpse of the massacre as people are burnt to a crisp, stuck in their vehicles.
But the moment Oliver is introduced to the Defenders, the moment he is told that they have been engineered to hate and kill Luytens, I knew exactly where the novel was headed. I knew (and this is a spoiler) that the Defenders would beat the Luytens. I knew that the Defenders, bred only for war, would eventually turn on their creators. And I knew that humanity would ally with the remaining Luytens (because I was sure some would survive) and find a way to stop the Defenders. And because I could see the entire book mapped out in front of me, any of the tension, horror and tragedy McIntosh had created in the first quarter of the novel was lost.
So why did I keep reading? Partly because McIntosh keeps the chapters nice and short and the action – as predictable as it is – moves at a pace. And partly because I was hoping that McIntosh would do something surprising with the narrative. And there’s a suggestion, at least in the second part of the novel, that McIntosh is aiming for something more than just the creation turning on the creator trope. Specifically, after the Defenders beat the Luytens and they surrender, the Defenders request a home of their own. Hilariously, they want Australia and the Alliance (a wartime UN) decide to agree to that request. (Yes, us Aussies get sent to the wilds of Canada). 15 years later, an envoy of diplomats are sent to Australia, on invitation from the Defenders, to discuss relationships moving forward. And this is where I thought McIntosh would move in a different direction, because we get to see the culture that the Defenders have created for themselves since the war with the Luytens. It’s really good stuff, and there’s some genuine insights to the Defender’s make-up as they struggle with high culture at the same time hoping, wishing, that their creators will admire what they’ve achieved.
But then things turn to shit and we’re back to widespread destruction and slaughter as the Defenders – spurned by their creators – take revenge on humanity. The last half of the novel is death, death and more death as our heroes fight, escape, nearly die and run away from the Defenders only to eventually join with the Luytens in a desperate bid to fight back.
I know you should only review the book you were given, not the book you wanted, but I can’t help but feel that McIntosh took the easy way out in terms of plot and narrative. The death of billions becomes a statistic rather than a tragedy and the plight of his characters (Lila, Oliver, Kai and Dominique), all flawed and broken given they’re all survivors of the war with the Lutyens, isn’t enough to elevate the book beyond it’s very predictable and basic trappings. There are some great moments in this novel and a promise of something different. Unfortunately it never eventuates.