Ever wonder what would happen if a millenia-old, sentient ant queen got fed up with humanity and released a hormone that gave sentience to all animals? I never have, but I’m sure glad Robert Repino did. In his debut novel Mort(e), after centuries of watching her people die at the hands of humanity, a sentient ant Queen unleashes a hormone into the world’s drinking supplies that gives sentience to animals, from house cats to deer in order to wipe humanity from the face of the planet. Giant killer ants help wage war on humanity, while house pets shoot their former masters. And this is just the first 25 pages.
A house cat formerly know as Sebastian, now called Mort(e) does what he has to to survive while searching for his friend, a dog named Sheba, who ran away as the war reached their town. Along the way he joins an elite military force known as the Red Sphinx and spends 8 years fighting in the war with no name against humanity. But Sheba is always in the back of his mind and he finally decides that he needs to find her, as impossible as that may be. He returns to his former master’s home and encounters a member of the human resistance while investigating a series of strange deaths though to be caused by the human-engineered virus known as EMSAH. With new hope that Sheba is alive somewhere, and a growing realization that all is not well in the ant Queen’s court, Mort(e) hurtles towards a destiny that will either end the war in peace or annihilate everyone.
Repino’s prose is spare and relatively matter-of-fact to match the grim realities of this post-apocalyptic world where humanity is on the brink of extinction and the animals who have taken over their domain are faced with the existential question of “how to live now?”. Mort(e) is closer to Watership Down in tone than Animal Farm as it’s less a political fable and more an exploration of what makes people human, but there is a direct nod to Animal Farm, by way of a sentient pig named Bonaparte, the only survivor of his farm and a member of the Red Sphinx. There’s also quite a bit of camp; scenes where giant killer ants snap people in half are highly reminiscent of horror B-movies of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
In as much as the animals govern themselves (there’s a question there), they do not disintegrate into dictatorships with ruling species as one might expect, but rather they try to discover a way to live that is authentic for themselves, but too closely resembles the lives their former masters lived, complete with infrastructure, bureaucracy, cars, and cell phones. While most animals believe that they will be better than humans, Mort(e) sees how similar they already are. In the second half of the novel, the virus EMSAH and its origin takes center stage and the novel begins to veer off into moralistic territory. While EMSAH is a garbled anagram, it’s not for the word you might expect which is a shame, because that word and what it evokes would have offered far more interesting options for the narrative. It’s hard to fully critique the end of this novel without revealing too much, so I won’t. Suffice it to say I was disappointed.
On the whole, the premise of this book surprised me and kept me reading through the night to its ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. I really enjoyed the story, but I wished the book had done more and pushed harder against conventions. Still, I’m excited to see what Repino will do next.