I received a copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Death Is A Welcome Guest is the second novel in Louise Welsh’s new Plague Times trilogy, although it can be read completely independently as a stand-alone. The only things the novels really have in common for the majority of the story is that they are set in a present-day London at a time when an unknown pandemic, nicknamed The Sweats, breaks out wreaking havoc on the population. This one also has that perfect blend I mentioned in my last review, of post-apocalyptic drama and murder mystery thriller.
The two novels in the series so far focus on completely different characters, and the protagonist of this story is Magnus McFall. Magnus is a struggling comedian on the cusp of a big break when, after a heavy night, he attempts to stop a rape and becomes embroiled in a brawl which lands him thrown in jail without trial. This is just as the disease is starting to take hold of London; Magnus is jailed immediately without bail as part of emergency procedures and thrown into a prison full of dying men.
Like with the first novel, Welsh wonderfully conveys the tension and brutality of a city on the brink of collapse, but this time in the more confined, almost claustrophobic, environment of a prison. “It was how the place made you feel, like it was alive and biding its time before it crushed you.” In the face of a national emergency, the men are abandoned without food or information surrounded by the dead, to the point where those who aren’t already dying or dead from disease are beginning to starve. Through a lack of other options, Magnus befriends his cellmate Jeb, and the two hatch a plan to escape the desolate prison.
As the two venture back out into the world, Welsh paints a bleak picture of the city seized by virus; first the abandoned jail, then the journey through the halted underground, where their only company is the piles of dead bodies fallen where they were awaiting trains, and the rats which have claimed the rails as their home.
As we follow Magnus and Jeb out of the city the pace of the story does feel a little slow, but this gives Welsh more time to build up the bleak, desperate atmosphere. This novel has a more contemplative feel to the first, exploring the emotions associated with the collapse of society, the survivors’ guilt and the desperation to find loved ones safe and well. Welsh explores how the devastating loss could affect those which remain; the idea that the disease could be followed by an epidemic of suicide and even murder. “Life is cheaper than it was before. Who knows what effect it will have on those of us who remain?” Plus, there’s the complete loss of everyday technologies, and the realisation that those remaining have no idea how to replicate it; “It was civilisation, and none of us know how it worked.”
The delicate relationship forged between Magnus and Jeb is intriguing; having met in extreme circumstances, it’s a tentative friendship laden with with suspicion on both sides and the two have no idea how the other really landed in jail and what their intentions are. Welsh draws out the lingering mystery, offering sporadic details gradually as the drama unfolds.
The story takes a turn and the pace picks up when they arrive at Tanqueray House, where a small settlement has formed; a community headed by a gun-toting priest. The two are pleased to get some relief from their journey, but then bodies start turning up, and they realise that being part of a community may be no safer than being alone on the road.
This trilogy is shaping up to be something really quite brilliant; I love the way the first two novels work both together and as standalones, as they explore different sides to the disease and corruption that follows. Although they follow very different characters, right at the end of the novel the authors delivers a twist which begins to bring the seemingly unrelated strands together. I can’t wait to see what she has in store for the final instalment.