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the farmReview By: David Stonehouse
Author: Emily McKay
Publisher: Penguin
Price: £7.99

Emily McKay’s ‘The Farm’ is set in a post-apocalyptic near future where biological mutants run wild and the blood of the surviving humans is farmed for food by turn-coat human ‘Collabs’ who have bought their lives by betraying everyone else. A pair of teenage twin girls, Lily and Mel, live in one of these blood ‘farms’ but they are desperate to escape. Time is running out – when the kids get too old their blood is no longer suitable and there’s no reason to keep them alive any longer. Adding to Lily’s difficulties is the fact that Mel is an autistic savant with obsessive behaviours and who can only communicate by cryptically reciting lines from nursery rhymes.

The Farm is a converted college run by a sinister Dean and surrounded by electric fencing to keep out the monsters, and they are great monsters. Genetic engineering has mutated a small percentage of humans into ‘Ticks’, super-fast and super-strong mutants with limited brain power but massive appetites for ripping out hearts and drinking blood. If Lily and Mel do make it past the fences they are still going to have to survive in a wilderness crawling with these flesh eating mutants. To compound their problems a face from Lily’s past arrives claiming to be looking for her and Mel to save them from the Farm and take them to safety. Carter is a good looking friendly face and he’s also got military training which would seem to make him the perfect , but is it all a bit too good to be true and can Lily really trust him and his mysterious friend Sebastian?

There are a lot of big ideas competing for attention here. The farm is a genuinely threatening and sinister environment with the traitorous Collabs watching every move, prisoners tracked with chips in their backs and the ever present threat of being staked out beyond the fence to feed the ticks. This is a world where teenage girls try to get pregnant to prolong their lives but where nobody knows what happens to the babies when they are born. The biological apocalypse is hardly a new idea but McKay handles it well and her monsters are suitably threatening and grotesque. There’s also a healthy dose of vampire mythology thrown in on top of everything else. McKay has a lot going on but on the whole she manages to keep all her elements sitting comfortably together.

The narrative is told from three points of view. Most chapters are from Lily’s first person perspective and her permanent edge of panic about her plans, the farm and her sister’s welfare is very well presented making her a warm and appealing centre to the book. We also have chapters from Carter, third person this time, and a very different point of view. By far the most interesting narrator is Mel whose short chapters are a window into how a severely autistic person with an obsession with music might view the world. Sadly she’s very underused which is a pity as her short bursts are one of the most interesting ideas in the book.

McKay’s management of her characters, the atmosphere and the big ideas is pretty impressive but her delivery of the action is where things fall down a bit. A good example of this is the escape from the farm. Lily and Carter’s frantic preparation is endless hindered with obstacles and problems which are obviously intended to steadily build some almost unbearable tension but unfortunately actually achieve the opposite by quickly becoming tedious. We know they are going to escape and after about a hundred pages of interminable false starts you end up wanting them to just hurry up and get on with it.

Later on there are sequences of chasing around the wilderness that become repetitive very quickly and Lily spends a lot of time treading water in soul-searching and self-doubt that frequently goes over and over the same ground. On the upside there are some outstanding moments where McKay really hits the mark with some genuinely exciting, gruesome and spectacular incidents.

The Farm doesn’t quite realise the potential of all its ideas but, niggles aside, there is still a lot to enjoy. McKay’s near future nightmare puts some fresh and interesting spin on well-worn apocalyptic ideas that are so frequently revisited that they can often feel tired. A tip to the publishers though – my review copy was an advance reading proof and I really think it would be a good idea to remove giving away the book’s big twist from the back cover blurb before the final print run. To say this undermined the impact of the finale would be an understatement to say the least. D’oh!

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