In this imaginative debut, the tale of Noah’s Ark is brilliantly recast as a story of fate and family, set in a near-future London.
Over the course of a single night in 2052, a homeless man named Cuthbert Handley sets out on an astonishing quest: to release the animals of the London Zoo. As a young boy, Cuthbert’s grandmother had told him he inherited a magical ability to communicate with the animal world—a gift she called the Wonderments. Ever since his older brother’s death in childhood, Cuthbert has heard voices. These maddening whispers must be the Wonderments, he believes, and recently they have promised to reunite him with his lost brother and bring about the coming of a Lord of Animals . . . if he fulfills this curious request.
Cuthbert flickers in and out of awareness throughout his desperate pursuit. But his grand plan is not the only thing that threatens to disturb the collective unease of the city. Around him is greater turmoil, as the rest of the world anxiously anticipates the rise of a suicide cult set on destroying the world’s animals along with themselves. Meanwhile, Cuthbert doggedly roams the zoo, cutting open the enclosures, while pressing the animals for information about his brother.
Just as this unlikely yet loveable hero begins to release the animals, the cult’s members flood the city’s streets. Has Cuthbert succeeded in harnessing the power of the Wonderments, or has he only added to the chaos—and sealed these innocent animals’ fates? Night of the Animals is an enchanting and inventive tale that explores the boundaries of reality, the ghosts of love and trauma, and the power of redemption.
(Synopsis via Goodreads.)
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)
DNF at 11%.
I struggled with this book. On the one hand, the plot really tickled my fancy. Set in the near future – a world almost completely devoid of nonhuman animals – an Indigent man and Flôt addict named Cuthbert Handley gets it into his mind that he must set the animals in the London Zoo free. With the Urga-Rampos comet bearing down on earth, whipping its assorted death cults into a frenzy, Cuthbert fears that the London Zoo – the world’s largest repository of animals, both living and mapped – is the Heaven’s Gate prime target. (Possible relation to the Hale-Bopp-Heaven’s Gate? Undetermined.) The animals can speak to Cuthbert, and they want out. (Or at least the hippos do. I’m afraid I didn’t stick with it long enough to hear from the polar bears and boa constrictors.)
Sadly, the story gets bogged down in the details. (So many details!) The world-building is extensive, and mostly takes place via massive info dumps. Normally I can excuse a fair amount of telling-not-showing, but the sheer amount of information presented by Broun is just overwhelming. Every tenth paragraph, it seems, is exposition, and it hangs heavy on the bones of the story. Just when I found myself getting into the story – the animal telepathy, Cuthbert’s institutionalization, the break-in at the zoo – the action came grinding to a halt as Broun went off on a tangent to explain the rule of Henry IX, or how Flôt withdrawal works. Between the tech, the politics, the evolving social issues, and the history, it’s just a lot to take in. Which is a bummer, because there are some really fascinating ideas here.
There’s a lot going on with the language, too. In the author’s note, Broun explains:
The novel employs language from both fading and emerging dialects and slang of Birmingham, the Black Country, old Worcestershire, and the Clee Hills region of England, from Guyana, as well as future-set, speculative words and phrases along with common phrases from British English. With more arcane or esoteric regionalisms, or opaque terms, footnotes are added where I felt they would help readers better appreciate the story.
Cuthbert seems to lapse in and out of a Cockneyed accent, and his sentences are often peppered with onomatopoeias. I found much of the slang and regional terms confusing. While Broun does include definitions for some words in the form of footnotes, I’ve no idea how he decided which words require further explanation, and which ones don’t. I could infer the meanings of many of the footnoted terms by considering them in context, while I puzzled over the words that went unremarked upon.
Between the language and the verbosity, Night of the Animals is … not impenetrable, exactly … but really very difficult to get into. Readers from the UK might have an easier time of it, but even absent the unfamiliar dialects, this is hardly a breezy read.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: The MC, Cuthbert Handley, is Indigent, homeless, and a Flôt addict. He also suffers from auditory hallucinations; he imagines (or does he?) that London’s animals are talking to him. Cuthbert’s brother died (or did he?) when they were children.
Cuthbert’s GP, Dr. Sarbjinder Singh Bajwa, is Sikh. He’s recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. His brother died of a drug overdose.
Animal-friendly elements: In the future (2052), death cults (presumably with no small contribution from “regular” human activity) have hunted animals, especially endangered species, to the brink. The London Zoo is the largest repository of nonhumans animals – both living and in the form of DNA maps – in the world. Cuthbert worries that this makes it a likely target of the Heaven’s Gate, so he sets about trying to free the animals before the cult can strike. Additionally, the animals of London talk to Cuthbert – or at least he belives they do.
This certainly has the potential to be a very animal-friendly story, but I DNF’ed at 11%, so I can’t say how it ultimately plays out.