If Robert Repino’s debut full-length novel MORT(E) was filmed --- and it would be one heck of a special-effects ride --- it would have to be prefaced with one of those full-screen warnings: “The following movie contains scenes of violence… Viewer discretion is advised…” etc.
To even think of alerting book readers that way seems so over the top. Yet Repino’s stunning skill in both assaulting and refining our senses with mere words is a major reason why this densely plotted apocalypse tale about sentient animals, terrorist insects and clueless humans works. Think of George Orwell’s iconic ANIMAL FARM on steroids, and then some.
In the first place, MORT(E) doesn’t feel like a first novel. The author’s own reflections on its protracted genesis, labor pains and birth suggest that other writers of at least equal talent would have pushed out half-a-dozen decent books in the time that Repino painstakingly tweaked and honed this one.
"Not only does [MORT(E)] explode with action and suspense, it pulls us aside to reflect on our ultimate life-and-death beliefs and whether or not they can really fulfill the promises we invest in them."
But dogged patience won out, producing a winner so memorable that even if you don’t like the ideas that drive MORT(E) along --- the seductive charm of false religion, the inevitability of societal decay, the never-ending spiral of intercultural violence --- the way they are expressed through Repino’s bizarre events and characters will keep you turning all 300-plus pages nonstop and still wish there were more at the end.
Animal rights supporters often argue that the beasts we adore as pets, raise as food sources, or admire as wilderness creatures understand more about humans than we think. This mindful premise underlies the sudden cognitive and speech abilities released among the world’s non-human residents when a catastrophic chemical release caused by rampaging ant colonies causes a vast breakdown of global civilization.
A languid housecat called Sebastian and his human-adoring canine pal, Sheba, are caught up in disasters that separate them and reinvent their lives in a bizarre inversion of who’s really in charge. Sebastian contracts the knowledge virus and, through an eccentric twist of language, becomes the formidable and heroic feline-humanoid, Mort(e). Sheba’s future follows another road, just as frightening and dangerous, but destined for a slightly hopeful ending.
To say much more about these and many other almost-human animals and their allegiance or enmity toward the voracious ant-collective (think Borg in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) would be to commit plot “spoilage” on a grand scale. Readers deserve to take this wild ride on Repino’s terms.
But you can trust MORT(E) to blow away conventional ideas about futurist end-times stories. Not only does it explode with action and suspense, it pulls us aside to reflect on our ultimate life-and-death beliefs and whether or not they can really fulfill the promises we invest in them. You won’t want to miss that.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on January 23, 2015