Alien invasion and dystopian fiction are the rage these days. Is anyone surprised? But it’s usually set someplace like Chicago or London or New York. The Hunger Games took a different tact, setting part of it in Appalachia. Jo Zebedee takes a different tact. She sets it in Belfast. Belfast knows disaster when it strikes. It was ground zero for The Troubles, the ethnic strife that gripped Northern Ireland from the founding of the modern Irish Republic to the end of the twentieth century. The Troubles have subsided, but the divisions that drove it remain. So does the undercurrent of violence, even if it’s suppressed by a more prevalent attitude these days of “Screw you. We’re Ulster!”
So imagine how residents of Belfast will put all that to work for them when aliens invade. When the story opens, Earth is under the rule of the Zelotyr, who originally came to gestate their young. They slaughtered millions of humans in the way, destroying larger cities like London and New York because they didn’t even consider humans sentient. The ruling Galactic Council decided otherwise, and the Zelotyr become the unwanted protectors (ie. – oppressors) of humanity. The story opens with John and Taz heading out and avoiding patrols to do work for a local gangster to get food for their families. They’re assigned to deliver a package to a specific spot. Taz, thinking it’s drugs, tastes the contents and immediately gets sick. They deliver the package, and overnight, the Zelotyr flee Earth, sickened by a virus that is killing them. Earth is immediately placed under the protection of the dog-like Barath’na. John is arrested to be tried by the Galactic Council for genocide, having been a participant in the slaughter of millions of Zelotyr.
He is aided in his fight against imprisonment in the newly built Inish Carraig facility by Carter, a police inspector who maintained an uneasy truce between humans and Zelotyr when the latter was finally forced to consider humans people. The Baran’tha aren’t quite as forgiving. And as John tries to survive prison and escape, his family is taken to a safe house. Only his sister Josey, who takes responsibility for the younger siblings while John’s away, is abducted by the same gangsters to keep her from revealing their part in the genocide. Between her and what John learns of the Baran’tha’s true intentions while in prison, Earth is either threatened with the extinction of humanity or the exile of the Baran’tha.
Zebedee, first and foremost, is writing about Belfast. It’s her home. So all that The Troubles has imprinted on Northern Irish culture makes its way into the story. The whole Protestant vs. Catholic divide takes a backseat, an acknowledgment that the Troubles were more ethnic than religious. But what that taught to the children and grandchildren of the Unionists and the IRA comes to fore here. It doesn’t matter if the aliens are Zelotyr or Baran’tha, they’re interlopers. They need to be gone. And to John, Josey, and Carter, all the world is Belfast.
John is simply a kid trying to survive and caught up in something he has no control over. Josey is the real survivor in this, resisting her captors and trying to hide when she escapes. Carter is the most interesting character. Having worked to keep the peace, he’s seen as a collaborator, which is a dirty word in Belfast. He has to walk a fine line between his duty to humanity and keeping his bosses happy. And his bosses may be the real collaborators.
The Baran’tha and Inish Carraig itself maybe the most interesting part of this story. Dog-like instead of the bipeds favored by hundreds of SF writers (including your humble narrator), they are nonetheless utterly alien. Zebedee gives them a pack mentality that is absolutely eerie. And the technology used to keep order in Inish Carraig is, in and of itself, frightening. Implants that enforce emotional equilibrium. Walls that can liquefy and swallow up prisoners in a sadistic form of solitary confinement. And pack attacks on unruly prisoners. It’s hell on Earth, but not of this Earth.
It’d be interesting to see more from this universe, but Inish Carraig strikes me as better off as a standalone. Zebedee nonetheless has a great imagination.