A Whisper of Southern Lights is the third in Tim Lebbon’s “Assassin” sequence. In previous works, we were introduced to Gabriel, a man haunted by the death of his family, and driven to seek revenge over the centuries. His quarry (and sometimes his hunter), Temple, is a creature of the unreal, a thing which can shift forms and demeanours, with a central core of violent malevolence. They’ve fought each other to a standstill over the ages, and come, at last, to this.
The setting of Whisper is the siege and collapse of Singapore during the Second World War. The area around the city is a mixture of broken urban wasteland, and the humid, claustrophobic miasma of jungle. Both are portrayed well. The jungle heat pours off the page, as does the reek of everything within it. There’s a sense of smallness about the human interactions here, of intrusion into another, uncaringly lethal world. Each step is a victory, each bitten off word a triumph. It’s an environment which seethes with life, and feels utterly alien, despite familiarity.
The city of Singapore, in the moments of its surrender, carries the same feeling. Here the structured environment has broken down under the stresses of war, and the familiar humanity of the world is in decline. There’s fat dogs stalking the streets, feasting on bloated bodies, whilst men on all sides commit atrocities or participate –a s actors or victims – in massacres. It’s a hell of our own making, and Lebbon approaches it honestly, unflinchingly, and leaves the reader in no doubt as to the boundaries that humanity will overstep when it feels it must.
Into this shattered remnant of a city steps Gabriel. He has a singular attention, a focus on hunting down and destroying the creature, Temple, that murdered his family centuries ago (and many, many others since). He’s a man on a quest, in the purest sense, unable to look away from his goal. This time, however, something has changed – and Gabriel is shown as, in some ways, less certain. He’s reaching out a hand to humanity at their worst, trying to recapture some of what he is and what he has lost.
Temple, by contrast, is a monster. Equally focused, his reason for being is chaos, murder, the scent of blood and fear. Lebbon gives us Temple as another alien figure here, one fascinated by what humanity can do to each other without his assistance. But he’s an eldritch, poisonous, deadly figure nonetheless, one whose purpose is singular, and who revels in it. There are no grey areas here – Temple is a predator, and whilst not one the reader can empathise with, he’s certainly one they can fear, even through the page – a terrifyingly charming mad dog of a monster, each word a lie, each action an act of violence.
The plot – well, it aims to disrupt the dynamic between the two. Gabriel has a human associate here, one whose slow destruction under the weight of Singapore’s fall is fascinating to watch, and whose fear and incomprehension in the face of this fantastic duo serves as a conduit for the reader’s own feelings. As Gabriel drags this hapless man along, in an effort to track down a vital piece of information, as Temple stalks them through the streets and the marshes of Singapore, they feel horribly real – dreadful, grand figures brought to life in a world where such things aren’t possible, against a backdrop of mundane atrocities.
It’s a great read – Gabriel’s race against time keeps you turning the pages, and the characters keep you invested in the beautifully realised world. On that basis –give it a try.