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Moths

Moths by Jane Hennigan,

Angry Robot, paperback, £9.99

Reviewed by Stephen Frame

If you like a dystopian thriller, Moths is your next read. This is a read-it-in-four-big-gulps book. A sit-up-until-4am-on-a-school-night book. Let’s start with the basics. A pandemic spread by mutated moths has killed half the male population of the world and turned the other half into crazed killers. The story begins forty years after the pandemic when society is now a matriarchy, and the few men left are confined to sealed facilities to keep them safe.

Mary, the main character, works in one of these facilities. She is an older woman who had a young family at the time of the outbreak. One night shift, a new worker, Olivia, who also lived in the ‘before times,’ strikes up a conversation with Mary. They share stories of their lives before and during the pandemic. Olivia invites Mary to a meeting, which she says will change her, but Olivia will not be drawn on the details of what this might be. This sets in motion the main plot thread for the ‘now’ chapters. Between these are the ‘then’ chapters, which are flashbacks to Mary and Olivia’s experiences during the first hours and days of the pandemic. It’s not a common structure for a novel, but it works well for this one. The ‘now’ chapters are slow-burn for about the first half of the book, but this is neatly offset by the frantic pace of the ‘then’ scenes. So, as we’re given a slow unfolding of Mary’s current world, a world that appears stable and humane if a touch authoritarian, we’re also given a glimpse of the old world falling apart almost in a matter of hours. But as the story progresses, the dark underbelly of the new world begins to show. This is where it really leans into being a thriller, as Mary’s past comes to meet her present and the secrets of the new world are uncovered.

Mary is a great character. It’s refreshing to see an older female as the lead in an SF novel. She complains about being tired and her joints aching. About the younger women not understanding her. She feels lost and isolated, cut off from the world she knew. She cares deeply about the men she looks after. Not your typical thriller hero, and all the better for it. This is what makes Moths such a great read. It delivers as a thriller, sometimes in ways you expect and a lot of the time in ways you don’t. It does have its flaws. The mechanics of the pandemic don’t bear looking at too closely, but that’s a minor issue. Olivia’s character doesn’t feel balanced enough between the ‘now’ and ‘then’ sections of the story, lacking more in the ‘now’, so at times, it felt like she is more of a plot device than a main secondary character. But again, forgivable.

A second book is promised, though it needs to be pointed out Moths is a standalone story. If the second is as good as the first, it will be worth waiting for.

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