Allen and Unwin
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
23 Hours is the latest in the series which started with 13 Bullets, continued in 99 Coffins and then followed with Vampire Zero. As that last title suggests, this series is a vampire series. Each of the books has been written so that they can be read either as standalone novels or as part of a continuum and 23 Hours continues that approach. Whether or not you’ve read any or all of the earlier novels won’t make much difference to your enjoyment or understanding of this novel.
Although 23 Hours shows many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the earlier novels, it’s probably the best so far. In large part that’s because the plot plays to Wellington’s strengths as a writer; however, it falters a little towards the end where there is a greater need for effective characterisation, one of his weaknesses.
This novel focuses on vampire hunter Laura Caxton, who has featured in each of the earlier novels. Laura has been sent to a maximum-security prison due to torturing a captive in an attempt to find and destroy a vampire. These events happened “between” novels and so are explained here. A cop in prison needs to watch her back at the best of times and before too long the best of times are a distant memory. The world’s last remaining vampire, Justinia Malvern, has taken over the jail and is using the inmates as a source of both food and new vampires. She’s issued an ultimatum to Laura, who has just 23 hours to foil Justinia.
One of the reasons this novel works is that Wellington is exceptionally good at writing action sequences, and the majority of this novel is essentially the novelistic equivalent of an action movie. It’s not very deep, but it moves fast, it works well within its own parameters and it doesn’t give you too much time to think about the details.
Initially I was a little uncomfortable with the setting, which didn’t ring true. This was problematic, given that the setting – the prison itself – is critical to the novel. After a while I concluded that Wellington wasn’t trying to write a realistic prison – he intended this to be a world almost but not quite our own. It sat better with me after that and I found it easier to accept the setting and just let the prose flow.
Characterisation has never been Wellington’s strength; he struggles to make characters convincing or to have them behave in consistent and realistic ways. And again, 23 Hours goes slightly off the rails when Wellington dwells too much on Laura’s feelings or motivations. When he just gets on with the action, it’s effective.
This isn’t a memorable novel. Not much about this will stand out or stay with you for long; the plot isn’t fabulously original, the characters are cardboard, and the prose is workmanlike. However, that doesn’t stop this being effective and enjoyable on its own terms. The plot moves quickly and is well designed. It’s confined largely to the prison and Wellington has used the conventions of the action genre effectively – a deadline, a hero who is to some degree trapped and who can’t simply walk away, a heroine in peril, a greater risk to society should our hero fail – and a lot of explosions. It’s actually very easy to picture this novel being filmed.
If you’re looking for a complex, interesting plot or strong characters, neither this novel or series are for you. However, if you’d like to read a diverting but shallow novel that’s entertaining while you’re reading it but easy to forget once you’re done, this will appeal. It’s better written than many novels and because the characters are so cardboard the gore really doesn’t have much of an impact. Depending on your point of view, that may be a recommendation or an indictment. 23 Hours will appeal strongly to readers looking for a fast-paced novel that doesn’t require too much thought. Other readers may simply find it bland.