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Before & After
Matthew Thomas
HarperCollins Voyager, 426 pages

Before & After
Matthew Thomas
Before & After is the first novel by British author Matthew Thomas who spends the rest of his time as a flight simulator graphics designer. He claims that he has nothing personal against sheep, but admits that the feeling may not be mutual.

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A review by Margo MacDonald

It begins with the cover which promises "exploding sheep, Nostradamus, and the end of the world". There's a picture of a sheep chewing grass and looking warily at his neighbour, a sheep who is blasting off into the stratosphere on the back cover.

"'Baaaaahhhhhh!' said Colin. 'KERBOOOOOOOOM!'replied Kevin."
And if that isn't enough to make you at least hold the book in your hands for several minutes and contemplate buying it, well then... well then, maybe you don't respond quite as well to sheer and utter silliness as I do. 'Cause I bought the book within 30 seconds of seeing it for the first time.

The story is about, well, exploding sheep, Nostradamus, and the end of the world (no false advertising there). The premise is that Nostradamus, as well as being a genuine prophet of great insight, obscure syntax, and recurring bad luck, is also immortal. It's the last few months before the Millennium and the end of the world is coming. Nostradamus, or Mike as he likes to be called, is adding up the signs and portents (i.e. the spontaneous combustion of sheep) and looking for the best place to run and hide. Because before the end of the world as we know it, there's got to be Armageddon (you'll remember what that's all about if you've read Revelations -- lots of bad stuff, really bad stuff). Every being that's ever been invented in the imagination of mankind to populate Heaven and Hell are going to meet on earth and have it out in one final, decisive battle.

The cast of characters ranges from Colin,"the first sheep to break the sound barrier" to Adam, the sleazy tabloid reporter; Deborah, the bright young thing to Q'almn, the multi-tentacled advertising executive from another solar system; Ted Trundell, the American televangelist to Guttlehog and Rubicante, minor demons of Hell. To name just a few.

And it's silly. Very silly. But it's somehow more than just silly. The plot, though admittedly simple, does contain a few surprises. The characters are likeable and interesting -- there is even some actual character development. There are moments of poignancy and a feel-good ending. No, it's not high art, but it is well done.

The author's influences quite obviously seem to include Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Monty Python, with maybe a little Bugs Bunny thrown in for good measure. But Thomas takes the prize for original, surprising and humorous metaphors. The book is full of them. Here's the most memorable to give you an idea of what I mean:

"Somewhere out there in the black cosmic void the great snarling beast that forever threatens mankind's existence was brewing up a big one -- it had eaten a Phall last night then corked its hairy bottom in preparation for the greatest stream of steaming kak it had ever let rip. Mike was determined not to be caught with his mouth open."
Now, they're not all as graphic as that, but they are all clever and some of them made me laugh right out loud.

Great characters, wickedly funny, slickly written, positively contemporary -- I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a great first effort which bodes well for the future of this new author. I, for one, look forward to seeing what comes after Before & After.

Copyright © 1999 by Margo MacDonald

Margo has always been drawn toward fantasy and, at the age of 5, decided to fill her life with it by pursuing a career as a professional actress. Aside from theatre (and her husband), Margo's passion has been for books. Her interests are diverse and eclectic, but the bulk fall within the realm of speculative fiction. She tells us that her backlog has reached 200 books and she's ready to win the lottery and retire.

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