In John Birmingham's doorstop thriller, a mysterious 'wave' wipes out most of North America in one fell swoop, leaving a vacuum of chaos in its wake. We then follow a handful of characters across the globe as they all deal with the impending crisis. There's Caitlin, an undercover spy on the trail of an Osama bin Laden-type character; Julianne, an aristocratic British yachtswoman operating on the wrong side of the law; and engineer Kipper in Seattle, which somehow manages to escape the effects of the wave. There are more but they are hardly worth bothering with.
Birmingham quickly establishes his high-concept premise - and then goes precisely nowhere with it. Lots of questions are raised but never fully explored nor answered. Indeed, Without Warning feels very much like a six-hundred page set-up for the other two books in the trilogy.
Traditionally, pizza was made with leftover ingredients, and this feels like the literary equivalent. There is nothing fresh or new here. The concept seems oddly familiar, like an episode of The Twilight Zone, and we've come to expect the international globetrotting from TV series such as Heroes and Lost. Indeed, Without Warning feels as though it was written with an eye on a television adaptation: Flashforward meets Homeland, if you like.
At the time of reading, Adam Lanza had just murdered twenty-six people in Connecticut, twenty of them children, and the gung-ho triumphalism in this book stuck in my craw. Never mind video games, it is the macho posturing in books such as this that keeps the National Rifle Association in business - and in the headlines. Take this description of one character's demise: "She'd cleaned four of them up when a single bullet from wheelhouse of the Viarsa blew out her brains." I'm not giving anything away by revealing this: you won't care either way. And herein lies the book's fundamental flaw: by splitting the story between so many characters, it lacks focus. The result is that there is not a single character you care about, whose story you are invested in. And unless you see America as the centre of the known universe, this is a difficult story to buy into. By the time you get to the 'big reveal' at the end, I suspect you will be decidedly underwhelmed.
At this point, I should make a confession: I have thus far managed to exist without reading a single Tom Clancy book, nor anything by John Grisham, and any of those kings of the airport novel whose book jackets always feature large block type and the silhouette of a lone figure in flight - that are usually left on the plane in the seat pocket. Birmingham's novel is obviously intended to appeal to a similar market.
Without Warning is available from 4 January 2013.