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‘On the cusp of sleep, have we not all heard a voice call out our name?’ the introductory note of G X Todd’s Defender asks. For many of the characters in this dystopian thriller, the answer is a desperate and unspoken yes. Except these voices don’t linger on the cusp of sleep. They are perpetual, persuasive and purposeful. They’re mankind’s biggest threat. And worst still, they exist in people’s minds.

Unlike those who have been convinced to kill others or themselves, consequently decimating the population, Pilgrim has made something akin to peace with the voice in his head. Named simply ‘Voice’, it keeps him company; the two converse, quarrel, agree and mull things over as Pilgrim travels across a deserted and crumbling landscape. Until one day he meets a young girl selling lemonade by the side of the road. It’s a chance encounter that will change both of their solitary lives.

Lacey is a curious and headstrong teenager who’s desperate to find her sister, who she hasn’t been able to contact since communication and power went down. She hitches a ride with Pilgrim, on the proviso that they’ll go their separate ways once she reaches her destination. Yet despite his protestations that they remain strangers to each other – he refuses to even tell her his name – Pilgrim becomes something of a reluctant guardian to the naïve girl. They’re unlikely companions in an increasingly dangerous world but Lacey doesn’t know about the voice in Pilgrim’s head, and he’s hell-bent on keeping it that way for both their safety.

Picking up a third stray along the way, a woman called Alex who they rescue from a motel where she was being held by two depraved siblings, the trio travel to the city where Lacey’s sister lives. It’s not long before they encounter another group of people, a violent and aggressively large faction who are searching for people with voices and willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. Which Pilgrim does, leading to events even the all-seeing Voice couldn’t have predicted. As the three unlikely allies get separated, a fight for survival begins as they try to find their way back to each other before it’s too late.

“Now, the moral to all this, Dear Stranger, is simple: that wisdom can sometimes be mistaken for craziness, and that strangers can often be friends in disguise.”

Drawing from suspense masters Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, Defender is an extraordinarily bold and assured debut. The first in a four-part series, it takes the often-stale dystopian theme and makes it fresh and exciting. Pilgrim might be gruff and mysterious but he’s a loveable hero. His accidental paternal bond with Lacey grounds what could be a depressing tale, giving it a rock-solid heart. And that’s what makes the story so engaging, the idea of finding likeminded people in what feels like a hopeless world. Which of course makes characters like the sadistic Dumont – an oddly charming psycho very much like The Walking Dead’s Negan – all the more terrifying.

Taking the concept of the bicameral mind and imaginary friends to a whole new level, Todd has created a plot that’s original and cleverly thought out, not to mention scary. She paints a vivid picture of how the voices used humanity’s inner fears and insecurities to wipe out the population, and it’s all so easily done. What/who the voices are and why they’re killing people is alluded to but never confirmed, something that will hopefully be further developed over the next three books in the series.

Featuring a final action sequence aboard a floating casino that you’d expect to see in a fast-paced thriller movie starring Matt Damon or Jason Statham, Defender throws everything it has at the reader. Emotion, excitement, fear and lots of bone-crunching, bloody fights, G X Todd has delivered it all and in spectacular style. It’s a must-read debut.

★★★★★

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