No Dominion

Louise Welsh

John Murray, £8.99

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Teenagers get disaffected. They want to make grand gestures, to stretch their wings and flee the nest. But what might the consequences be in a post-apocalyptic civilisation, after an epidemic has wiped out most of the human race and people huddle in isolated groups, with no idea of how the world outside works?

Louise Welsh started down this road in 2014 with A Lovely Way to Burn, the first of her Plague Trilogy, in which humanity was devastated by a new disease called the Sweats. It was followed by Death is a Welcome Guest the next year. No Dominion finds the main characters from the previous two novels living in Orkney seven years after the outbreak. Stevie Flint, who survives from the first volume, now finds herself president of the Orkneys. Former stand-up comic Magnus McFall, a native Orcadian, has made his way back to his old family croft. The small community has been doing its best to raise its children, who are strong in rural survival skills but, despite having the contents of the Kirkwall library at their disposal, “are living in the ruins of a civilisation they had no way of restoring”.

The island community imagined by Welsh is an intriguing place, mostly for what remains unspoken. The residents are all aware that theirs is not a community that evolved organically. The children are all fostered, their biological parents dead. The shared bond between the people who live there is not blood but bereavement. And just beneath the surface lurks the adults’ shame of the things they have done to make it this far, moral compromises that before the Sweats they couldn’t have imagined they were capable of. Their natural suspicion of outsiders, because they might be carrying the Sweats, is compounded by their knowledge of what they themselves have done to survive, making them even warier of strangers.

One night, three unexpected visitors appear in the harbour. One is Belle, whom Magnus has met before, in the first wave of the Sweats. They soon sail off again, but five of the island’s teenagers, including Magnus’s foster son Shug, and an 18-month-old toddler, have disappeared with them, and two of the island’s residents have been murdered. Stevie and Magnus sail to the mainland in an attempt to find them and bring them back, and on their nerve-wracking journey they encounter some of the diverse mini-societies that have sprung up in the wake of the Sweats.

Welsh rewards readers who have stuck with the story this far with a riveting final instalment which rarely stops for breath, dropping Stevie and Magnus in one dire situation after another as they make their way to a newly reinvigorated Glasgow, where they believe they’ll find the children. Dystopian visions may be ten a penny these days, but Welsh’s Plague Trilogy has carved a distinct niche for itself, and this final book is arguably the best of the three, tying up all the thematic threads about society and morality in a violent, gripping race against time.