Review: HELL DIVERS, by Nicholas Sansbury Smith
Posted by maddalena@spaceandsorcery
I received this book from NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing in exchange for an honest review.
I have no trouble admitting my weakness for post-apocalyptic scenarios (I can lay the blame on Stephen King’s The Stand for this…), so when I saw the synopsis for this novel I was immediately interested: the Earth surface has become uninhabitable after being ravaged by nuclear explosions in World War III, and what remains of humanity dwells on huge airships that have been transformed from instruments of death into arks in which the last survivors barely hang on through increasing difficulties. The ships are old, overcrowded; supplies and foodstuffs are never enough to satisfy everyone’s needs; and the vessels require constant maintenance, achieved through scavenging runs operated by the titular Hell Divers.
These are men and women who dare the dangerous descent toward the radiation-riddled surface in search of spare parts or fuel cells in the abandoned pre-war depots: first they glide down to the surface braving constant electrical storms generated by the massive nuclear explosions of the war, then they have to scour the land for the needed supplies, trying to avoid the dangers and pitfalls on the ravaged ground, the broken-down cities and the hot zones where radiation still runs rampant. As the story opens, a new threat is added to an already terrifying scenario: nightmarish creatures, the result of radiation-induced mutations, prey on the Hell Divers and their already dwindling numbers, adding a new level of hazard to a mortally dangerous profession.
The average life expectancy for a Hell Diver is fifteen runs, but the main character Xavier Rodriguez (simply called “X”) is a veteran with almost a hundred drops under his belt: disillusioned and despondent, he lives only for the scavenging missions, knowing that each one can be his last but apparently not caring either way. He lost his wife to cancer – a common occurrence on the ships, since the residual radiation cannot be shielded with one-hundred percent success, even far above ground – and he feels no anchor to the pitiful remnant of humanity living aboard the Hive, his days spent, like most of his fellow divers, on scavenging missions and the wild drinking bouts in-between each one.
With only two ships remaining afloat – Xavier’s own Hive and the Ares – humanity stands on the brink of extinction, and when Ares suffers a terminal breakdown and crashes to the ground, only X and the remaining Hell Divers stand between this same fate for Hive and the remote possibility of finally finding a landing place where try and rebuild some sort of civilization.
The picture painted in this premise is quite grim, and the most riveting part of the novel resides in the bleakness of the situation and the way in which human society – or what’s left of it – has adapted to the new living conditions: space aboard the ships is at a premium, and a good portion of it is devoted to raising crops and livestock to feed the survivors. Social differences have transcended color and gender and veered toward usefulness to the ship: engineers and farmers are among the privileged, right after the crew members and the Hell Divers, of course. All the others are relegated to the cramped spaces of Below Deck, where illness, malnutrition and resentment run rampant, and where the more industrious manage to eke out a slightly better life through the sale of black market goods or straightforward crime.
Conditions on the ground are even worse: under the constant cover of roiling black clouds, where electrical storms rage in waves and the sun never shines through, the land is covered by the ice of nuclear winter; rubble and the remnants of once-proud skyscrapers dot the landscape and offer a perfect breeding and hiding ground to the Sirens: blind and hungry creatures gifted with razor teeth and an unerring sense for prey – the evolution of some hardy animal or perhaps of those humans who did non perish immediately after the holocaust.
It’s on this unforgiving background that the story develops, starting without preamble with a fateful dive and from there expanding the focus to humanity’s overall situation: it’s a quick, immersive story that captures your attention and keeps it there, with almost no space for a breather. This is more of an action-driven novel, which means that deeper characterization is sacrificed on the altar of pacing and narrative speed: on the plus side, this allows for an almost cinematic quality to the storytelling – and this would indeed make for a great movie with breath-taking visuals, where the Hell Divers’ descent through the cloud layer could work as an amazing opener, and the scenes of the attacking Sirens offer several nerve-wracking moments. Still, I would have liked something more from the characters, that at times tend to be more tropes than people: the disillusioned veteran, the beleaguered captain, the former thief-turned-diver who finds a new meaning in life, and so on. A few events seem a little too convenient as well, like the young orphan who finds himself in Xavier’s care and goes from grieving, sullen silence to affectionate acceptance almost overnight with no visible progression.
Nonetheless, these are simply personal issues and the fact remains that Hell Divers is an engaging story that holds one’s attention from start to finish and will certainly satisfy the readers’ need for adventure in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The kind of book that can keep you awake till the small hours…