The Wilders want revenge and things are looking bleak.
Wilder Country by Mark Smith is here and it’s every bit as gripping as The Road to Winter.
We could rant about how exciting, dark and riveting this series is all day. But instead, we’re going to let the author, Mark Smith, tell you about it himself.
Then keep reading because there’s an extract after it!
Dear Fellow Travellers on The Road to Winter,
So, the winter of storms has passed and Finn, Kas and Willow have survived well enough. They are all deeply affected by the loss of Rose, especially Kas, who has withdrawn into her own world of pain and grief. Meanwhile, Finn and Willow have grown closer, hunting and fishing together to keep them all fed.
Spring will change everything, though – the snow will thaw, the storms will clear and the Wilders will be out on the hunt again. Welcome to Wilder Country.
There are lots of challenges in writing a series like this. The good bit is that I can launch you into the events of book two without too much set-up. You know the characters, you know the setting, you know the dangers. I can refresh your memory with some subtle references to the events leading up to the winter, then grab you by the arm and pull you headlong into the action.
One of the biggest challenges, though, is to make sure the characters grow and develop – they can’t remain stagnant. For one thing, they’re a year older than when we first met them – and it was a year packed with experiences that are sure to have changed them.
A central aspect of Wilder Country is the relationship between Kas and Finn. To be authentic, it needs all the angst and heartbreak of a teenage relationship. They are constantly trying to figure each other out, while at the same time craving companionship and love. I’m particularly pleased that one of the early reviews of the book, by SimonMcDonald, noted: ‘The dynamics of their relationship is what makes the novel shine.’
Similarly, Willow really develops in Wilder Country. In The Road to Winter she was very much a peripheral character, pulled along by Kas and Finn, but now, with Finn as her mentor, she grows into this resilient and resourceful little fighter.
Another challenge in writing a series is to preserve the essence of the first book, without falling into the trap of rewriting it. This demands new characters, new settings and new dangers to be faced. Early in Wilder Country, we meet the No-landers, a rogue group of Sileys who are fighting back against the Wilders using guerilla tactics. They are more open to the use of violence, arguing with Finn that they need to employ the same methods as the Wilders if they want to survive.
The question of whether violence is ever justifiable, even in a dystopian world, is an overriding theme of Wilder Country. We see this question examined through the differing perspectives of Finn and Kas, the No-landers, the Wilders and the valley farmers. Finn and Kas have very different histories and their experiences of the world determine what they will do to survive.
I hope this whets your appetite for Wilder Country. I guarantee you will be gripped until the last, devastating line!
And the big news? There will be a third (and final) book in the series. The Land of Fences is gaining pace and should be out late 2019.
Want a quick taste of Wilder Country before you race off to your nearest bookshop?
The morning air is cold but the storm from last night has cleared and the wind is feathering the peak at the river mouth. Rowdy waits patiently on the lookout platform while I change into my wetsuit and pull my board out from its hiding place in the tea trees.
Before long, I’m duck-diving under the waves as they hit the inside bar, the freezing water finding the holes in the stitching and my bare skin underneath. When I reach clear water, I catch my breath and ease into a steady rhythm, paddling towards the peak. The winter storms have shifted the sand and it’ll take me a while to get used to how the wave is breaking. When I get close, I sit up on my board and take stock. The peak is further along the beach than I’ve seen it before, almost in line with the platform, but provided the channel is still shallow enough, the wave should break all the way through to the river mouth.
Sitting out here, it’s hard not to remember what it was like before the virus: surfing with my mates, the beach dotted with swimmers and walkers, the lifesavers’ flags flapping yellow and red in the offshore breeze. On the other side of the dunes the car park would be overflowing on a day like this, the road choked with cars and caravans and the town buzzing with holidaymakers. Across the river and up the hill, Mum would be out in the garden, weeding or pruning, and Dad would be in the shed stripping back an old table, the smell of dust and linseed oil hanging in the air.
But when I look now, I can see all the way back up the river to the road bridge and the ruins on the main street, the shells of burnt-out shops and abandoned cars. It’s hard to keep track of time when you’re on your own but there’ve been three winters since the virus spread beyond the cities, reaching us and forcing the town into quarantine. That’s when Dad died. And two winters ago, I lost Mum. Everyone else in town was either killed by the virus or took their chances heading north, leaving me and Rowdy to fend for ourselves.
We did okay, hunting and fishing and staying out of sight.
Then Rose came.
Everything changed the day she appeared on the beach, scared, injured and pregnant, an escaped Siley on the run from Ramage and the Wilders. Taking her in and hiding herunleashed a shit storm. First there was the journey north to find her sister, Kas, then the escape back to the coast with Willow in tow, and finally, on the worst night of my life, Rose dying as Hope was born.
The swell is a little unsettled and I need to be careful not to get too far inside the peak. Dad always said the best way of starting a surf was to take off on the biggest wave you could get. Opening your account, he called it. So I ease over the top of the first four waves, each one breaking a little further out, until I’m in perfect position for the next one. I barely have to paddle into the take off, just a couple of deep strokes and the rest is muscle memory. I’m a little slow to my feet, but I balance myself and feel the beautiful rush of the drop down the face.
As usual, I lose all sense of time in the water and before I realise it the sun’s above the ridge and there are new storm heads building in the west. Kas and Willow will be awake and wondering when I’ll be back. So I take one last wave, riding it all the way to the beach, where Rowdy paces up and down the sand, chasing seagulls he’ll never catch. He brushes past my leg as we make our way back up the dune to the platform.
The winter has almost passed and Kas, Willow and I have welcomed the return of some warmth to the air. It’s been a winter of storms, with huge fronts coming straight up from the south, smashing into the coast. There’s damage all over Angowrie—big trees uprooted, roofs blown off and the river flooding right up into town on the king tides.
In a strange way the harsh weather’s kept us safe. We’ve been isolated for months; the road north is blocked and there’s snow on the ridges. As long as I’ve been alive it hasn’t snowed this close to the coast, but the weather’s so cocked up now, everything feels like it’s never happened before. We figure the Wilders were forced back to Longley to sit out the winter, but with the warmer days, they’ll be out on the hunt again soon.
It’s been a tough time for all three of us, but Kas has been the worst affected. Rose’s death hangs over everything she does. She stays in her room for days at a time, refusing food and snapping at Willow and me when we try to cheer her up. She’s a different person now. I’d hoped when we got back to Angowrie she’d gradually work her way through her grief. But every time I’ve tried to comfort her, to hold her or even touch her, I’ve felt her resistance. No matter what we talk about, she always ends up back at Ray’s place that night, Rose dying, Ramage arriving to claim his child and us running from the Wilders. She hardly mentions Hope—it’s too hard, on top of all her grief, to think what might have happened to the baby.
I’ve spent the winter worrying about Ray. He’s used to being on his own but he’s so isolated out there in the Addiscot Valley. It’s only a couple of hours away on foot but he’s too old to travel far and I know the storms will have tested him. He’ll be struggling to get out and work his garden, not that much would’ve grown in the cold months. Before the weather got really bad, I thought if we went out to visit him Kas could at least see where Rose was buried, but she kept putting it off, always finding excuses.
The first few weeks after Rose died were the hardest. The full force of winter hadn’t arrived yet and we had to be extra cautious moving around Angowrie, not knowing if the Wilders stayed south of the main range. I didn’t believe they’d leave us alone. They’d figure we had food supplies hidden somewhere and Ramage still wanted to take Kas back to Longley. As far as he was concerned, she was a Siley and his property.
Back then, I wasn’t prepared to risk trapping along the fences. It’s what they’d be expecting, that we’d return to a place we knew we could get food. As long as we stayed in town, kept out of sight, lit a fire only on moonless nights and got by as best we could, I thought we’d be safe. So we relied on what food we could pick off the reef, mostly pippies and mussels exposed at low tide.
Rowdy rushes ahead once we get close to home. By the time I’m through the back door he’s lapping water from his bowl in the corner. Kas and Willow sit at the kitchen table peeling hard-boiled eggs.
Willow looks up and smiles. ‘How was the surf?’
I cup my cold hands on the side of her face and she reels away. ‘A bit chilly,’ I say.
Kas forces a smile then goes back to the eggs. This is what she’s like now, only half with us, hardly joining in, as though it would be some sort of crime.
With Kas off in her own world, Willow’s become my shadow. She’s always watching me, asking a million questions about rabbits and hunting and living off the land.
I decided last night that we should start trapping again and she’s excited to get going.
After breakfast she sits on the back porch watching me oil the traps. The wind has turned and another storm is threatening. She pulls her favourite woollen coat tight around her shoulders. We needed to find some clothes for her when we got back from Ray’s, so I went through all the houses in the area. Eventually, I found a heap of kids’ clothes in a place at the top of Parker Street. She had a great time trying them on, parading up and down the hallway. Even Kas managed a smile.
‘Show me how to do that,’ she says, coming and kneeling next to me on the grass.
I work the trap’s jaws open and shut while she drips oil into the spring. I look up and see the concentration on her face, everything focused on what she’s doing, as though this is a skill she’ll need to hang onto.
She pushes the hair off her face with an oily hand and catches me looking.
‘What?’ she says.
‘Nothing,’ I say, trying not to smile. She’s easy to be around. I never have to second guess her or worry about upsetting her. She’s turned out to be a tough kid.
The storm is short and sharp, exhausting itself in fifteen minutes. When we’re ready to leave, I stick my head in the door and tell Kas we’re heading up to the fences. She’s still at the table with the same blank look on her face she’s had since we got back from Ray’s. I so much want the old Kas back, the one that was funny and warm. She looks the same, her hair thick and tangled and falling across her face, deep brown eyes, the skin dark around the birthmark on her cheek, but there’s something missing—the spark that made her who she was. Even though she’s been right here, sleeping in the next room, eating at the same table, warming herself by the same fire, she might as well be on another planet.
‘I’m taking Wils with me,’ I say.
‘Sure. Whistle when you come back.’
This is the way she talks now, in short little sentences, like anything else is too much effort.
We head out with the traps, keeping to the back tracks and staying alert for any sign of danger. The storm damage is everywhere. Fallen branches and uprooted trees block our way at every turn. Only Rowdy is unconcerned, darting ahead, happy to be active again after a slow couple of months. He senses the familiarity of it, though this time with Wils included in our little party. It’s easy to forget she’s only nine or ten years old. She doesn’t wander or dawdle like a kid anymore, she walks with purpose, keeping her eyes and ears open.
And she’s been practising with the bow and arrows. At the beginning of winter she set up a target in the backyard, an old mattress with a bullseye painted in the middle. At the start, I think she did herself more damage than the target—she had big red welts on her arm where the string hit her—but gradually she got the hang of it. Now she can hit the target from the other side of the yard, and when she isn’t practising, she’ll be in the shed sharpening the metal tips of the arrows.
It takes twice as long to get up to the ridge as it would have before the winter. We approach the fence slowly but everything looks the same. The burnt-out hayshed is still a tangle of steel girders and blackened rafters, all collapsed into a heap. I know this place well—I’ve been setting my traps up here since before Mum died.
Further along we come to the gateway where I knocked Ramage off his trail bike. I’d strung a length of wire across the opening so he’d hit it at speed. He was injured and I had a knife at his throat, but somehow I couldn’t finish him off. Now I wonder how things might have been different if I’d killed him when I had the chance. Maybe he wouldn’t have attacked the valley, forcing us to escape with Willow. Maybe Rose would be alive. Maybe she and Hope would be living with us and Kas would be a different person.
Finding a small gap in the bottom of the fence, I dig the first trap in and push hard on the spring to set the plate. Willow squats next to me and watches.
‘This is where you’ve gotta be careful, Wils. If the plate doesn’t catch, it’ll snap shut and you’ll lose a finger.’
The plate holds and I sprinkle some dry leaves over the top to hide the metal. Willow is holding her breath. Rowdy knows to stay well clear. We set four traps at intervals along the fence.
It’s slow going on the way back down. Willow walks out in front, checking every now and again to check I’m keeping up. When we reach the lookout above the old football ground we sit down for a rest and scan the town below for any sign of danger. From up here I can pick every street, every short cut and trail through the dunes. This is my town, my fortress against the Wilders. If they come again, I can outwit them; I know the terrain so much better than they ever will.
Willow sits next to me and says, ‘When is Kas going to be happy again, Finn?’
‘It’s going to take a while, I think.’
Willow sighs and looks to the blue line of the horizon. ‘She cries in the night,’ she says.
‘She’ll get better. We’ve just gotta look after her until she does.’
‘Finn!’ Willow says suddenly. She points to where the main road winds down into town. There’s movement, something catching the light. I can’t hear anything above the sound of the wind whipping through the trees, but I watch a gap in the bush a little further down and wait to see what emerges.
There are maybe six or seven of them—we’re too far away to work out who they might be, but they’re moving slowly. I can’t see any weapons but they’re pushing handcarts piled with sacks. I’m hoping they’re Drifters, like the ones that passed us when Harry had me blindfolded up above Pinchgut Junction.
Rowdy’s picked up their scent and he stands to attention. Keeping low, we take off down the track to the river bridge, arriving before they get there. We make our way across and hide just off the road in a low stand of tea tree.
The first thing I want to see is that they’re not Wilders. After a few minutes they come to the bridge and stop. There are six men and two boys, Drifters for sure. Their clothes hang off them and they hold rags over their mouths as though the air is dirty. Their hair is long and matted and their eyes dart left and right. One of them, a tall man with a stooped back, walks out onto the bridge and looks up and down the river.
Willow lies next to me holding her breath. Rowdy crouches low, ready to spring at them if he has to. I touch him gently on the nose but he stays alert. These are the first Drifters I’ve seen in Angowrie, the first to take their chances on passing through a quarantined area—at least I hope they’re passing through.
The tall guy motions the others across. They stay in single file keeping their heads down and their mouths covered. As they pass us, I see how thin they are. Their eyes are dark and sunken, their arms and legs like sticks. I can smell them too—a stench of sweat and piss. Some are barefoot but a couple wear shoes that clomp on the asphalt road. The smallest two boys, about seven or eight years old, are at the back, struggling to keep up.
They continue along the road parallel to the river, the axles of their carts squeaking under the weight of their loads. We track them as they pass below the platform and make their way up the hill and out along the coast road.
I’m happy to see the back of them. Mum and Dad always said we should help people less fortunate than us, but all the old rules fell away after the virus. We probably could’ve given them some food, though we hardly have enough for ourselves, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have killed us for it. I stopped trusting people a long time ago. I don’t feel good about it, but it’s necessary now.
In the next couple of weeks we survive the last of the storms, hunkered down, hoping our little house will stand up to the weather. The appearance of the Drifters is a reminder that the spring will bring more danger. We’ve got no way of knowing what’s happening outside Angowrie in the bigger towns like Wentworth, where I used to go to school, or further north in the larger cities, but people are moving again. Add to that the threat of the Wilders and things are going to change. Quickly, it seems.
We see out the winter, scrounging for food and huddling together to keep warm. I can’t help but think back to my previous two winters, when there was just Rowdy and me doing the same, scrounging for food and huddling together for warmth. But everything has changed since Rose appeared on the beach.
More than ever, now, I need to find a way through to Kas, to open her up again. And not just because I want to feel her close to me. If we’re going to make it through the summer, with the Wilders returning to settle old scores, all three of us will have to have to work together. It’s the only way I can see us surviving.
We know what happens next and trust us, you definitely want to find out.
Wilder Country is out now.
If you haven’t read The Road to Winter yet, get that too, then find somewhere nice and quiet and READ ‘em.
They’re both available now at all good bookshops, through the Text website, and in ebook.
Until next time,