November 16, 2012

Guest Post:Violence, thuggery and slapstick in YA fiction by John Barlow

Today's a very special day: author John Barlow, who's an old friend of this blog and already shared with us a great post about writing thrillers, is releasing a new novel. This time, he tries his hand with a YA dystopian adventure called Islanders that promises to be something else. To celebrate, John's joining us once more here at Stories of my Life to share another fun guest post to tide us over until my review of Islanders is up (expect it soon!). Also, there's a giveaway for you!

Ben Brewer has lived all his life on the Island. But things are getting unbearable. There’s hardly any food and there’s nothing to do. Plus, the adults are so scared they won’t let anyone leave.

Thirteen years ago, the Mainland was torn apart by war and contaminated by biological weapons. Ben’s parents were leaders of the Resistance. They moved all their friends and comrades to the safety of the Island. But then his dad went back to fight, never to return.

Ben was born a few months later. He has never met his dad.

When a message arrives, saying that his dad is still alive, Ben decides to go to the Mainland. He needs to know the truth about the War. If his dad is still alive, why did he never come back?

With him go Bad n’ Worse, the toughest two kids on the island; Silver, the smartest girl; plus her brother Coby, Ben’s best friend. When they get to the Mainland they find a world gone mad, a chaos of weird genetic mutations, and a life of slavery for those who didn’t escape.

Ben discovers that one man yields total power: Jack Sullivan, his dad’s oldest and bitterest enemy. If Ben is ever going to uncover the truth about the War and find his dad, he’ll have to risk everything and put himself at the mercy of Sullivan. And that’s just the start of it...

Violence, thuggery and slapstick in YA fiction

My YA novel, ISLANDERS, is out today. The story is about a 13 year-old boy, Ben Brewer, who has lived all his life on an island. He was born during a devastating war back on the Mainland, a war which tore the country apart and saw the release of deadly biological weapons. Ben’s parents were leaders of the Underground, fighting for freedom. As the war got worse, they moved all their friends and comrades to the safety of the Island, where Ben was born. But then his dad went back to fight, never to return, presumed dead. Ben has never met his dad.

However, when a young messenger arrives from the mainland saying that Ben’s father is not dead, Ben decides to go and find him. But if he is alive, why did he never come back home to see his own son?
What I wanted to create in this story was a traditional quest, but one which involved not only Ben’s search for his father, but also a search for the truth about the war. The dystopian society that confronts him on the Mainland is chaotic and cruel, with power held by one man, Jack Sullivan.

Sullivan was his dad’s bitterest enemy, and part of Ben’s journey is not only to look for his dad, but to ask what freedom means, to try and understand why a world of mindless slavery emerged in the aftermath of war, and whether it can be destroyed. Just how is tyrannical power maintained? Ben also needs to know why his father, a freedom fighter who struggled against Sullivan’s tyranny, was unsuccessful.

But the Mainland is not the place for 13 year-olds. There are mutant animals to fight off (although you can actually ride some of them), and the police are out looking for stray kids. No one is allowed to roam free on the Mainland.

Ben travels with four other people of his age, all from the Island. In terms of the physical challenges of the journey, most important of his companions are two twins, nicknamed Bad and Worse. They are war orphans and nobody on the Island likes them, because they’ve always been violent, rude and malicious. But as the story develops, they turn out to be tough and loyal, and good fun to have around.

There’s quite a bit of violence in the book (fist fights mainly, no guns) and it’s mostly Bad and Worse who are guilty. Bad and Worse are a little older than Ben, and they are far bigger and stronger. As lonely orphans growing up on a miserable island, all they’re ever wanted to do is escape. Now that they have, they’ll do anything not to go back. It’s Bad and Worse who befriend a mutant pig, who steal police cars, and who fight Sullivan’s men... Indeed, it sometimes seems that it’s not just the twins’ physical strength that saves everyone, but their love of violence. They’re the kind of kids who would cross the road for a fight, just what you need in a mutant-infested dystopia.

There’s an element of slapstick in this violence. ISLANDERS deals with some serious issues--parenthood and abandonment, environmental contamination, the nature of power--so when it came to violent confrontations, I wanted these scenes to be almost a kind of light relief, with the agents of Sullivan’s cruel tyranny usually the ones getting a good kicking. This is made more feasible because there are no proper guns on the Mainland, all ammunition having been spent in the war. Sullivan’s men do have taser-like electric stun guns, but nothing more than that. So although ISLANDERS is a novel with plenty of physical action, no one dies. So, if you like the odd fistfight in your friction, the novel might just be for you.
Like most writers, I sometimes imagine what a movie of the book would be like. Ben Brewer is the hero of ISLANDERS, but I reckon it would be Bad and Worse who got the biggest laughs, and perhaps a few cheers along the way.

~John Barlow



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John Barlow’s fiction and non-fiction has been published in the US and Canada by Harper Collins and Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, and by various publishers in the UK, Germany, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Italy and Spain. He also works as a ghost writer, journalist and translator. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Spain and has two sons.


  1. This sounds good! And I totally want a mutant pig.

    I think the thing about dystopians is that they COULD be based on something that could really happen or go on. I love survivors, and those are often the main characters in these types of books.

  2. Christy, I cannot remember how or why the mutant pig thing came about (they're called bullet pigs and have rock hard bone-covered heads) but they are consistently the most mentioned element in the book whenever I've shown it to anyone. I also want one; they're very good company! Best, John Barlow