The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray
The Last Day (2020), by Andrew Hunter Murray, is a sci-fi thriller, though to be honest I found both elements (the science and the thrills) to be a bit slight and while it’s a highly readable work, I’d call it moderately engaging or tense.
The book opens some decades after “The Slow” (or “The Stop”), when the Earth’s rotation gradually declined then halted altogether, plunging half the planet — the “Coldside” into uninhabitable cold and darkness and the other half into a baking sunlit zone. The UK found itself in the goldilocks zone and is one of the lucky few places on the planet that is relatively habitable, though it keeps itself going only by a ruthless rejection of refugees, a staunch coastal defense, and a move to a totalitarian regime. Even so, despite the government’s propaganda, people can sense that things seem to be falling apart, with food shortages, forced labor, earlier and earlier conscriptions into the army, and bands of wild folk roaming the spaces between towns. Ellen Hopper, a scientist studying the new ocean currents, is abruptly helicoptered from her Arctic rig to London by government security at the dying request of her old tutor Edward Thorne, a surprise to Ellen since the two hadn’t parted on good terms. Before he passes, Thorne reveals he is in possession of a great secret, one the government is desperate to get its hands on (Thorne had been forcibly ousted from his role as advisor to the Prime Minister/dictator 15 years earlier). The meeting with Thorne sends Ellen on a path that has her dodging (not always successfully) brutal government agents as she works with her ex-husband, an editor at the Times, to find out Thorne’s potentially world-shattering secret.
The story is told via a third-person limited narrative that follows Ellen in real time, while periodically flashing back to her time at Oxford and her early relationship with Thorne. The voice is smoothly fluid, easy to follow, and gives a nice glimpse into Ellen’s character even as she faces a number of chases, escapes, deaths and near-deaths, and frequent tense, adversarial encounters.
Despite relatively few descriptive passages, Murray does an effective, efficient job of conveying in few words the current plight of society. A short scene shows “criminals” (trials now last minutes) being force-marched off to work in the Breadbasket, a brief attack in the woods conveys the desperation of former re-settlers, a quick salvage of canned goods from a ghost ship makes clear the worrisome shortages of food. World-building in The Last Day is thin, but sufficient.
Ellen is a solid enough character; it’s easy to root for her perseverance in the face of great risk, and she’s fleshed out via her current and past relationship with her ex-husband David, as well as with her brother Mark, who works in the security department. David is a likable companion and evokes a similar underdog response in the reader via his desire to do actual journalism under a government that doesn’t allow it. Thorne is disappointingly flat and feels more like a plot precipitator than a character. That’s even more true for the dictator Davenport, who plays no active role but is constantly referenced, where he comes off as a cipher at best and a convenient boogey-man at worst.
The pace moves along easily and smoothly, but I wouldn’t call it fast-paced as it felt there was a noticeable amount of wheel-spinning. Some information comes a bit awkwardly, there are a few contrivances, several implausible decisions/actions, and I have to say I called the big reveal way back toward the start of the novel, diluting its impact more than a little. But the story never bogged down, and I never felt torn about finishing it.
In the end, The Last Day was another in a long line recently of “solid” reads — books that kept me interested enough to keep going, didn’t display any major flaws, but never grabbed me and pulled me forward through the story, found me captivated by the characters, or wowed by the language. Thus, solid.