Following its union with the United States and a series of disastrous foreign wars, Britain is in the grip of a severe crisis; the country is now under the control of The Authority.
But up in the far north of Cumbria, Jackie and a group of fellow rebel women have escaped The Authority’s repressive regime and formed their own militia. Sister, brought to breaking point by the restrictions imposed on her own life, decides to join them. Though her journey is frightening and dangerous, she believes her struggle will soon be over. But Jackie’s single-minded vision for the army means that Sister must decide all over again what freedom is, and whether she is willing to fight for it.
The Carhullan Army (US title, absurdly, Daughters of the North) is a near-future dystopia, taking on a pretty familiar – even dated – idea: in the future, things become Very Bad Indeed and women are treated as dehumanized incubators. It’s compared to The Handmaid’s Tale because of course, though I’d argue the resemblance is remote; the core premise is, as I said, pretty dated and has been done to death by feminist SF of the 80-90’s. In that regard it doesn’t do anything new, the central idea is antique if anything, but the execution is something else. Hall is a stunning writer; the near-future dystopia she creates is starkly real, intimately detailed, wonderfully researched from landscape to the day-to-day details of livestock rearing (and she makes it interesting).
She did not make monsters of us. She simply gave us the power to remake ourselves into those inviolable creatures the God of Equality had intended us to be. We knew she was deconstructing the old disabled versions of our sex, and that her ruthlessness was adopted because those constructs were built to endure. She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side, and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. It was beautiful to walk in. As beautiful as the fells that autumn.
The other deeply compelling part is how she pulls off writing this charismatic, yet fanatically violent leader – Jackie is a fully realized character even if we never get into her head (or perhaps especially because we don’t). The training she puts Sister and other women at Carhullan through to forge them into soldiers isn’t given page after page of tedious ‘grittiness’, but it’s done quickly and efficiently: brutally written.
Set in a future Great Britain scarred by fracking and ecological collapse, The Race is the first full-length novel from Nina Allan, winner of the 2014 BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction (Spin, TTA Press), and the prestigious Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for Best Translated Work (Complications/The Silver Wind, Editions Tristram).
The Race opens in the coastal town of Sapphire, dominated by the illegal sport of smartdog racing: greyhounds genetically modified with human DNA. For Jenna, the latest Cup meet bears a significance far beyond the simple hunger for victory. Christy’s life is dominated by fear of her brother, a man she knows capable of monstrous acts and suspects of hiding even darker ones. Desperate to learn the truth she contacts Alex, a stranger she knows only by name. Together they must face their demons, wherever that may lead. Raised at the Croft, a secret government programme focussing on smartdogs, Maree has to undertake a journey through shipping lanes haunted by the enigmatic and dangerous Atlantic whale. What she discovers en route will change her world forever.
The story of four damaged people whose lives are inextricably linked, The Race is a novel of tender nuances, brutality, insight and great ambition, a narrative that lays bare the fears and joys of being human, and, ultimately, offers hope to us all.
The Race has only been on one award shortlist so far (the BSFA, which – up against Ancillary Sword – it never had a chance, unfortunately: not that Ancillary Sword doesn’t deserve the win of course, but The Race is a very unique novel as well) but IMO it deserves to be on more. I’ve read two long things by Nina Allan so far, this and her novella Spin, and have enjoyed both – though The Race more so than Spin.
The Race does something remarkable: I don’t typically have much interest in dog-racing, but like Hall, Allan gets me to pay attention to and take interest in a subject matter I don’t usually look into, which goes a long way in measuring an author’s ability. It’s also deliriously metatextual, for reasons that I don’t want to spoil for other readers. Like Spin and The Carhullan Army, it normatizes women’s sexuality in a powerful, raw way; it handles coming of age, trauma, and complex relationships in a way that feels immediate, real, breathing.