PrintE-mail Written by Ian White

Mort(e) used to be called Sebastian. He was a satisfied house cat who lived with a young family and proudly kept guard on their home. But then the family fell apart when the new neighbour arrived and began an affair with Sebastian’s female owner. The new neighbour had a dog – Sheba – who quickly became Sebastian’s best friend and cuddling companion, despite the fact that cats and dogs don’t speak the same language. When Sebastian’s male owner discovers his wife’s infidelity, there is violence. Sheba runs away into the night. Little does Sebastian know, this is only the beginning.

A war has been raging behind-the-scenes. Sebastian has watched it on the TV news without understanding what is happening. The ants have turned on humanity. Over the course of centuries, they have grown huge and are now rampaging across the world, the size of cars, killing all the humans they can find. The ants have recruited all the other species to help them and have found a way to transform surface animals into intelligent bipeds who are now picking up weapons and slaughtering their masters.

When Sebastian wakes up to find himself changed, able to stand on his hind legs and talk and reason like a human, he turns on his owner and begins the long journey to find Sheba. He reluctantly joins an army of cat vigilantes called the Red Sphinx and discovers that human-kind has unleashed a biological weapon called EMSAH which is destroying animals in all kinds of disgustingly painful ways. He becomes a soldier and then a war hero (earning the right to name himself, so he changes his moniker to Mort(e)), while the Queen of the Ants becomes God and the animal’s revolt turns more and more into a Jihad, with their feverous blood lust making them little better than the humans they are supplanting. This isn’t just a post-apocalyptic fable about the search for a friend, this is a story about genocide, religious fanaticism, and how quickly and insidiously we humans might lose control of our planet. Those are all big subjects, and author Robert Repino is only marginally successful at juggling them.

As a concept, Mort(e) is well put together. Although an end-of-the-world landscape populated by walking, talking warrior animals with a main character that has a distinctly ‘lone samurai’ flavour about him isn’t exactly an original idea, it’s definitely a good one. And everyone loves a cool giant ants story so it isn’t the set-up that’s the problem here. The main weakness lies in the writing, which has its moments but too often feels like a banal and unrelentingly grim first draft loaded with not-as-smart-as-it-thinks-it-is ‘movie of the week’ dialogue and shallow characterisations. For example, Mort(e) is much more interesting at the start of the book when he is just Sebastian, the house cat who enjoys hanging out in the attic, than he is after his transformation when he sets out into the world like some kind of wishy-washy feline Mad Max. What’s worse, many of the incidental characters are more charismatic than Mort(e) is, which is definitely a no-no. Luckily for Mort(e) – but sadly for us – those characters usually don’t survive very long.

Still, it’s not all bad: ‘Mort(e)’ has made me think twice about being nicer to ants, and consider how cats and firearms might not make for the best combination. No other book I’ve read this year has made me do that.


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