Reading Exit Kingdom by Alden Bell

Exit Kingdom

Alden Bell, Tor, 287pp

Late in Exit Kingdom Father Ignatius tells Moses Todd that no one is ever lost in America: ‘It’s all destination. Every corner of it. […] Do you see it?’ And Moses does – ‘the whole country, just one big road, attached to itself in different ways’. For Moses, ‘a true frontiersman’, ‘defined by forwardness’, his whole life has been a journey, especially since the frontier abruptly reopened when the dead began to rise. In Bell’s previous novel, The Angels Are The Reapers, Todd was the adversary, hunting Temple, the young girl who killed his brother, Abraham. Although Exit Kingdom is nominally set after this time, the story Moses tells at a stranger’s campfire takes place well before Abraham’s death, making it both sequel and prequel.

The story is filled with motifs familiar from the previous novel, not least the allegorical landscape which mysteriously continues to provide for its inhabitants as necessary, even though many years have passed since society collapsed. Bell attempts a cursory (and unconvincing) explanation of why the infrastructure survives in various places but this is clearly not where his interest lies. The dead continue to wait patiently for the living, while the living for the most part prey on one another’s weaknesses, or else hide from outlaws and form contingent communities.

At one such, Moses and Abraham meet Father Ignatius, who asks them to deliver a young woman, whom he calls the Vestal Amata, to a facility in Colorado Springs where they can investigate the fact that she appears to repel the dead. Ignatius previously rescued the woman from a carnival and the owner is reluctant to give her up. Moses, Abraham and Amata head north into an increasingly snowbound landscape, pursued by the carny folk, encountering the usual set of figures and tropes that inhabit contemporary zombie novels.

Exit Kingdom poses the question of how, psychologically, one might survive an apocalypse. Moses is the product of a society permeated by a simple but strong religious faith. It is reflected in his speech, in his storytelling, in his expectations of others’ behaviour. He has a code of honour, and tries to maintain a sense of order in his life, although he has lost everything he held dear. His journeys may seem aimless but he is nonetheless in the grip of a powerful if obscure destiny. He is the gunslinger who arrives in a community when most needed and moves on when the job is done: not a good man necessarily but a man who tries to do the right thing, all the while uncertain what that might mean in a world so radically changed.

In this, Exit Kingdom is more successful than its predecessor, perhaps because Moses Todd has more experience than Temple, more to consider, more to regret. This is a much more intimate novel than Reapers: the landscape Moses explores is internal rather than external and the post-apocalyptic setting, while necessary, is merely a beginning rather than the novel’s apparent raison d’etre.

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