The World is at War, Again by Simon Lowe

It’s my turn today on the blog tour for this debut novel published by Elsewhen Press, who specialise in speculative fiction. Simon Lowe has previously published short stories and newspaper pieces; his first novel is a spec fiction comedy involving several ‘Agent Assassins’. It’s perhaps easiest to give a flavour of this novel by describing the blend of possible influences that occurred to me as I read it…

My Spy Family

Some of you may remember the fun kids TV series My Spy Family, which featured a pair of enemy spies who fell in love, retired, had a family but still act like they’re spies. Then there’s Scarlet Thomas’s novel Oligarchy, in which a Russian oligarch’s daughter goes to an English boarding school where there are all kinds of odd goings on. Mix these together with a dash of St Trinian’s and then add in a good dollop of Killing Eve‘s two protagonists with their twisted relationship (I reviewed the first Killing Eve book here), and you’ll begin to approach the feel of this novel.

After a short prologue which introduces siblings Nadia and Chewti as young girls, we head off to the home of the Fandanelli family, wherein Marco and Maria have called a family meeting to explain something to their son Peter.

“Things aren’t going too well with the War.”

They go on to tell Peter, they’re going away as volunteers, they’re selling their house and that he has been offered a free place at boarding school courtesy of the Co-Op Government, and they have accepted for him.

“Panbury Hall is going to provide you with an excellent opportunity for success; much more so than the concrete school you currently attend. (…) We are sorry for the short notice. Three days isn’t a long time for all the packing and the goodbyes, but we’re sure you’ll make the most of it.”

Marco and Maria had been desperate to earn promotion to become fully accredited agent assassins and after dropping Peter off at his new home, head off to cause carnage on their mission on a cruise-liner.

We met the Misorov sisters in the prologue. Never was sibling rivalry so strong. Now young women, Nadia has become a top Agent Assassin gone rogue – she is ‘Villanelle’ – and enjoys killing just too much, including her own mother. Her sister Chewti had taken a different career path, but is possibly the only person who knows her well enough to stop her and avenge their mother’s death, she will need to become a better assassin than Nadia.

The final key figure is Peter’s dorm buddy, Leslie Mustak, scion of the Mustak family who ran Dramtech, the former high-technology manufacturer of weapons and more, but which is now abandoned as the World has regressed into the War. Leslie, nicknamed Stacks, will be Peter’s best friend as the pair will try to work out the secrets of the crumbling Panbury Hall, where the novel will climax.

The scene is set for much bumbling around on the high-seas, a cat and mouse chase between the assassin sisters, and not a lot of lessons at Panbury Hall, interspersed with news from on high about how worried they still are about the War. Note: ‘War’ is always with a capital W.

The novel is written in the present tense, which keeps thing immediate, and you can always sense when the author is picking up the pace – the sentences become shorter, fired off like machine-gun bullets. I must admit, this got a bit wearing at times, and read more like screenplay instructions. Many sections are dialogue-driven however, suitably snappish and this worked well. The best thing is the characters, you can’t help but love Marco and Maria, whereas Peter is a bit of a wimp, but Stacks is up to the job. The kids are brighter than the adults, which definitely generates some of the fun and humour and of course with this novel being a comedy is entirely right. The portrayal of the government as useless, with one hand not knowing what the other is doing, to put it politely, is at times heavy handed, but it’s not Big Brother, it’s hard to take them seriously. However, I was always relieved to return to the antics of the main characters who are undeniably entertaining. A madcap comedy novel indeed!

Source: Review copy via Literally PR – Thank you. Simon Lowe, The World is at War, Again (Elsewhen Press, June 2021) paperback original, 290 pages.

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