Review: Kings of a Dead World

After putting down Kings of a Dead World, you’ll find yourself short of breath, with a lot to say and unpack. Best to start by saying that Jamie Mollart’s second novel is a haunting, layered and cinematic entry into the genres of climate and dystopian fiction.

On a climate-ravaged, over-populated Earth, humanity’s collective solution is The Sleep. To conserve resources for the population, the city sleeps for months at a time. Inside the city, Ben struggles with his limited waking time and the disease stealing his wife from him. Meanwhile, city Janitor, Peruzzi, struggles with his duty to watch over the sleeping city, where dissatisfaction is growing.

Mollart’s narrative is split into two timelines, and we’re some way into the book before we realise what connects them. The past timeline is of a world we recognise more; politicians dancing around climate issues. The present, however, is embedded within an entirely new culture. A world edging closer to lawlessness. A city that worships Chronos, the Greek god of time, and Rip Van, who enforces The Sleep. When citizens’ heart rates peak above a certain level, for example, they’re sent to sleep on the spot. They live only around the time they are granted, so it makes sense that they would worship the god of time. The janitors, who live more solitary but celebratory lives (sometimes partying together while the city sleeps), worship Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. These details show Mollart’s attention to world building and are convincing, too. Despite the short time between the timelines, it’s believable that the living conditions of the city would lead to an accelerated cultural shift.

There were two prevailing feelings that clung to me while reading the novel: sadness and horror. Ben’s situation with his wife, whose memory and brain are deteriorating with each day that passes, is at times gut-wrenching. There is a desperate urgency to their time together, and Mollart’s entire premise of the sleeping city squeezes this sense of limited time even more. Plus, the doom of our very real climate crisis weighs heavily on the story.

The horror that stirs within Kings, growing with each drop of blood that gets spilled, centres around two stand-out characters of chaos who are terrifyingly unpredictable – Andreas and Slattery. For example, when Peruzzi’s Janitor companion, Slattery, breaks into a Sleeper’s house and opens a woman’s sleeping tube, you simply don’t know how the scene will end. This sense of terror was thoroughly enjoyable and unbearable all at once.

Kings is populated by complex characters who each have questionable, damning impulses and actions. This is what makes the novel so layered. It offers little hope over our climate crisis, but rather ponders the real and moral consequences of severe measures to reduce population. It asks that if time were so limited, what would be the point? But what’s the alternative? Grappling with these questions makes the book an anxious, thrilling read. With grand themes and sharply imagined architecture, Kings is urgent, unforgiving, and begging for the screen.

Rory McNeill.