‘The Earth’s resources are dwindling. The solution is the Sleep.
Inside a hibernating city, Ben struggles with his limited waking time and the disease stealing his wife from him. Watching over the sleepers, lonely Peruzzi craves the family he never knew.
Everywhere, dissatisfaction is growing.
The city is about to wake.’
Kings of a Dead World explores a Britain in which its inhabitants are only permitted to be awake for one month at a time, before they’re forcibly sedated again and sent into a deep sleep until the next month that they are permitted to be awake. This is ostensibly to preserve what remains of the world’s resources, though there are indications that the ‘sleepers’ aren’t told the whole truth – not that they have the power to do anything about their situation anything. The story primarily follows main characters: Ben, a former anarchist who is struggling with his wife’s worsening dementia, and Peruzzi, whose job it is to look after the city and its sleepers, and who is finding himself more and more dissatisfied with his life (or lack of one).
The system by which life operates for the average person in the city is extremely unsettling, largely because there now seems to be no true purpose to their lives and no free will. What can anyone really do with their lives when they are awake for only one month at a time? The average person doesn’t seem to work or have leisure activities, and looks only to be waiting until they are put to sleep again. Anyone believed to be causing a disturbance, or, in some cases, simply has elevated vital signs, can be and usually is immediately sedated by the system. This happens on more than one occasion to Rose, Ben’s wife, who has little memory of who she is and what is happening around her, and so often grows distressed enough that the system sedates her, which only perpetuates the cycle for her. Seeing what happens to Rose because of her illness is one of the elements of the book that is the most difficult to read, particularly as more of her past unfolds and it becomes quite evident that she has suffered for much of her life. It’s initially easy to sympathise with Ben, who seems to be trying to do the best he can for her, yet there are moments when his actions feel selfish and it can seem that he is acting out of a desire to make things more bearable for him (‘easier’ is not the word here) rather than what would be right for her.
Peruzzi’s life seems just as empty and no less under the control of forces that he doesn’t understand. From the outset, he doesn’t appear to relish his relative ‘freedom’ and finds it difficult to find joy or happiness in anything. He spends his life alone, with only technology for company, and while he relies on said technology for many things, he gradually begins to understand that it cannot be trusted in all respects. Sometimes, it’s as if he gets a kick out of his ‘absolute’ power, yet this is often short-lived or feels forced, and his interactions with actual people tend to leave him shocked or unable to comprehend the immediacy of life – something not surprising for an observer normally removed from supposed reality. His flippancy and attitude towards others makes him difficult to sympathise with, though he may well have simply survived with such limited contact for so long that he doesn’t really understand how to interact or empathise anymore.
Ben’s past is revealed through a series of ‘confessions’ he makes to one of the few residents of the city that he actually trusts, and with his past comes the path that led humanity to the ‘solution’ of the sleep and how the city has been manipulated into accepting its fate. It’s difficult to tell whether Ben ever actually believes that he is doing the right thing, especially as his group’s war against the establishment grows more and more bloody, for in moments he seems matter of fact about its accomplishments, and uncertain about his choices in others, his memories undoubtedly coloured by what he has learned since the days of his youth. The structure here is incredibly effective, especially as it often makes the reader reconsider what they may feel about more than one of the characters.
Kings of a Dead World is an effective, impactful and often unsettling read that feels not too distant from our own world in its politics and most pressing challenges. Many thanks to Sandstone Press for sending me a copy for review.