Night of the Animals, the literary science-fantasy debut novel by Bill Broun, is nothing short of wonderful. With concrete prose, strangely beautiful visuals, and outpourings of raw emotion, the book builds a universe where magic and madness are of equal validity, where even in the bleakest of circumstances, there is a chance for hope. It is surprising and disturbing in equal measure, a beautifully apocalyptic work that belongs in the canon of genre-leaning literature.
On the last evening of April in 2052, as the massive comet Urga-Rampos heads past Earth, an old man named Cuthbert Handley arms himself with a pair of bolt-cutters and sets out to the London Zoo to free the animals. All around him, the world is in flux: interspecies rivalries in the animal pens, a crackdown on the homeless “indigent” population of London on behalf of its newly restored monarch, the rise of a suicide cult called that believes killing animals is a way to ascend to a higher plane of existence.
Cuthbert knows very little of this. Guided what he thinks is “The Wonderments,” a power that allows him to hear animals speak (and a slew of drug-induced hallucinations), he simply wants to find his dead brother and give the animals the freedom he thinks they’re asking for. As animals flood the streets and forces clash in the night, it’s clear Cuthbert’s actions have unleashed something across London. Over the course of one night, the world will find out exactly what.
Night of the Animals is the most beautiful account of terrible events I’ve read this year. Broun’s London is painted in bold colors and vivid images, every scene presenting a surrealist view on a dystopian world. A harmful drug is rendered as a seductive “blackberry colored orb;” the fascist “special police” of the King’s Watch are resplendent in dark red uniforms. Hell, one of the weapons of mass destruction that comes into play during the climax is a gigantic white monstrosity that fires bright pink energy tentacles while a massive comet hangs above it in the sky. There’s a nice contrast here— the writing is incredibly grim for large portions of the book, especially in the lead-up to the events at the zoo, but the visuals stay vibrant, and the vibrant ue of color (green for Cuthbert’s hallucinations, orange for danger) makes for arresting visuals.
Broun is a writer who prefers to show rather than tell, and uses his visual gift to add a tremendous amount of detail to the narrative, immersing the reader in its world, and in the thoughts and emotions of the characters, to an almost disturbing degree—be they Cuthbert’s constantly distorted memories of his brother Drystan or the heartbreaking standoff between two chimpanzees and a phalanx of police in Madame Tussaud’s wax museum (it makes sense in context).
The beautiful writing does take the edge off what might be relentlessly grim in other hands, but it never lessens the sledgehammer impact when Broun does want us to feel it hit, hard. The result is a book as immersive and arresting as it is bleak, a terrifying, gorgeous work about belief and empathy, and one of the most engaging, heartfelt novels I’ve encountered this year.