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Night Train by David Quantick2 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsNight Train arrives with some healthy buzz behind it. But it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. Horror? Dystopia? Satire? Weird fiction? It tries to do a little bit of all of these, but never with enough consistency to succeed at any one of them. Author David Quantick has won an Emmy Award for his work on such popular TV series as Veep and The Thick of It, and so he’s clearly someone with an established pedigree in satire, and the admiration of his peers to go with it. But whatever the hell he’s trying to do on Night Train just clickety-clacked right on past me. There are ideas here that had potential, but slapdash writing and shallow character work fails to bring any of them successfully to their destination.

We open with a young woman regaining consciousness in a darkened train car. She realizes that she has no memory of who she is or how she got there, her only clue being a name tag reading “Garland” on her clothing. Moving forward, she finds the next car is full of dead bodies, and she soon meets another amnesiac passenger calling himself Banks, who may have been on board for weeks or even months. Soon after, a third person emerges, a petite young woman named Poppy who carries a teddy bear in her bionic arms. Making their way from car to car, they find that nearly no two are alike, and more than once they’re set upon by savage beasts both natural and horrifically mutated. Their goal is to make it to the front of the train, where they hope all of the mysteries of their situation, including who they are, where they are, and why any of this is happening to them, will be revealed.

This isn’t an original premise — if anything this story can best be described as mashup of two movies, Cube and Snowpiercer — but Quantick does avoid the most obvious cliches. I mean, the big hackneyed thing we usually expect to happen when characters who have lost their memories wake up aboard mysterious planes or trains or automobiles is that we’re going to find out they’re dead and on their way to hell. Thankfully, Night Train goes nowhere near that hoary old chestnut. But what Quantick comes up with instead still leaves us with a lot of open questions, and his writing is so threadbare and simplistic that much of his prose reads (not surprisingly) like a script, where convention dictates descriptive passages be kept to a handful of sentences at most. Naturally, it’s nice to see someone who isn’t overwriting. But Night Train is a full novel that most of you will be able to blow through faster than a novella, simply because there’s so little substantive content in its pages.

Because the plot requires their identities to be mysterious ciphers, our three main characters are reduced to a collection of personality quirks. Poppy seems emotionally unfazed by anything. And while her mechanical arms give her the strength to punch holes clear through the roof of a train car, there are other occasions when she gets stuck behind locked doors she can’t open. Banks mopes a lot and seems mostly fixated on the food packets he finds in the dining cars. All he knows about himself is that his current face is not the one he was born with. And Garland is single-minded on getting to the front car and finding a conductor or driver who will explain everything. Yes, Quantick does do the minimum necessary work to get us invested in this trio of oddballs, just enough so that we’ll stick with the story in the hopes the answers they’re looking for will make the book worth it. But the minimum is all he does.

For those expecting a horror story, we get some gory scenes, but at no time does this odyssey through the mystery train ever convey an ounce of suspense. And while I’m aware comedy is perhaps the most subjective of genres, I didn’t find a single line in the book funny, though it’s trying very hard. As I said before, I’d put this all down to Quantick’s writing, which is so minimalist that at times it’s almost distracting. Why are there so many scene breaks where they aren’t needed? It’s a common convention in every novel for writers to place a break between paragraphs to establish that we are now shifting to a new scene or viewpoint. But Quantick does this multiple times per page, sometimes on a line by line basis. Not only does it wreck any sense of pacing the story could hope to have, but it’s so distracting it actually breaks immersion. And if you pull me out of your story, I’m sorry, but I’m going to say your book is just plain badly written.

There is one scene, when the train inexplicably pulls into a massive deserted station where many other trains sit abandoned and ash is falling from the sky in thick flakes, that managed to draw me into its creepy atmosphere the way a good story should. And to be fair, it’s followed by a pretty good monster fight. But it stands alone, an oasis of quality, in an otherwise undernourished story.

By the time we get to the climax, and an enormous infodump revealing a bunch of tedious business about a dystopian world and a fallen empire, I was ready to get off. This is one of those books you read and think to yourself how much more intense and exciting it could have been if only [Insert Your Writer of Preference Here] had written it. Perhaps Jeff VanderMeer, or Neil Gaiman? China Miéville wrote a book about a perpetual train, Iron Council, and even though it’s my least favorite of his, I would recommend it in a heartbeat over this. Night Train is more like Torpor on the Borient Express.