Reynard "The Fox" Douglas is an outlaw racecar driver who despises the government that jailed him, drafted him, and seized his money.
He's also the only man who can pilot an experimental nuclear-powered supercar into the Zone, a realm of mists and monsters where nobody gets out alive.
The Zone is expanding...and eventually it will engulf the entire world. At the heart of the Zone is a singularity, a portal into other times and other places.
Transported into the distant future of Earth, Douglas has to fight his way across a landscape of alien cultures and bizarre life forms, in search of an ancient superweapon that can stop a sentient black hole from devouring the Earth.
Inspired by William Hope Hodgson's classic THE NIGHT LAND (1912), NIGHTLAND RACER is an exciting and inventive tale, using Fenton Wood's trademark combination of mythology and hard SF.
Very much an Idea story, Nightland Racer is a journey into the bizarre unknown that manages at once to be adventurous, full of action, and deeply philosophical. You've likely never read a book like this.
It harkens back to an older style of story in many ways, shaking off modern mores while remaining accessible to modern readers.
The atompunk style setup introduces us to an 80s/90s-esque 'roped back into it' protagonist - the Racer - who ends up embracing his role at the center of the government's secret mission - to infiltrate the Nightland (at that point called the Zone) and destroy the anomaly at its heart.
Now a typical 90s movie plot would have this play out straightforward, with any twists likely being of a personal nature. Instead, the author repeatedly takes us to the edge of the unknown, then plunges deeper.
Without spoiling anything, I'll say that the path forward is graced by characters, factions, creatures and events that you've probably never imagined, but may once have dreamed. Intentionally and admittedly riding the line between hard sci-fi and gonzo future dreamscape, Wood draws us from the beginning to an end you'd never guess but your heart will certainly recognize.
The protagonist and his supporting cast are simple enough people on the surface, with subtly deep backstories to undergird their skills and motivations. The primary appeal in Wood's characters lies in their willingness to be epic.
Whenever something unimaginable or impossible is required to move forward, they try their best to perform, and this makes them likeable. We are along for their ride in much the same way we follow Frodo and Sam, or one of Conan's more unusual adventures.
While the Racer himself is not the character I imagined from Wood's descriptions of the book when it was a work in progress, I ended up liking him just for what he was - a man underprepared and yet pressed into saving the world.
The writing is excellent, at times evoking a classic, slightly pulpy style (see the author's inspiration in the blurb). Wood conjures vivid depictions of the strange, wondrous, and occasionally horrific with good polish and poetic flourish in the places it belongs.
The structure is right on point for this kind of story - introducing us to all the major elements before leveraging everything to support the finale. It's not exactly standard and while some readers may feel the formula they're used to being bent, for me it's a welcome departure from the norm. That's not to say it's any kind of experimental thing - those not tuned into structure much likely won't notice, in part due to the quick pace and modest page count.
I had heard prior to reading this that Wood knows what he's doing, and this book proved it.
These are not things that could rightfully be called detractors but only bits and bobs that poked my sensibilities.
All the characters at times swing into detailed exposition about the history and fate of the Nightland. It's not particularly natural and yet I would say it's the best way that the book's necessary details be communicated. There is one character in particular whose author-given gift is nearly complete knowledge of the world, which both educates the reader and provides the Racer potential solutions to his problems. This creates a slightly rough texture to the story for me, but ensures that the full vision of the story sees light.
I probably would have banged my head against a wall trying to figure out how to exposit smoother and may very well have failed, but this gets the job done, and does it efficiently. It's all so dense, juicy and interesting enough that most readers may not mind or notice this technical or maybe stylistic choice.
There's really nothing else to say in this section because I simply loved the book.
If you're thirsty for something epic and strange that will stick with you for days or weeks and beyond (distant future anyone?), with deep ideas, rich lore and a clear sense of joy and amusement in its skeleton, Nightland Racer is your next read.