Readers of Mitch Johnson’s Pop!, with its satirical critique of Big Business, know that beneath its all-action plot there lies the author’s call-to-arms to rescue the planet. The same urgency drives several questions in Johnson’s Afterword to Spark, including ‘What if the future is not a high-tech utopia as we often like to imagine, but medieval and meagre and monstrous?’
Spark is set in a sparsely populated land where small communities depend upon foraging and a few sheep. Water is scarce, intense heat is punctuated by occasional storms, and there are no seasons. Male elders run the villages, with violence a first recourse in keeping control. In Last Village, religion fuses oppression with superstition, based on obedience to The Ancients – the Four Fathers – seemingly intent on inflicting suffering upon their descendants. The harshness of this Faith is mediated by the wisdom of its Priestess. Her servant Ash – ‘almost of age’ – is hated by most of the villagers as the son of a man once admired as a hero, now loathed as a traitor; his mother died long ago from ‘the blood sickness’. Readers might be uncertain whether or not this land is intended to portray our own world in the future, perhaps after an apocalyptic devastation prompted by the climate. No disused railways or roads criss-cross the landscape. No derelict cities, no aftermath of warfare. The only buildings which might remain from our own times are ruined churches; but there’s no trace of the beliefs or lives of those who built them. If young readers are to make the kind of active response to climate issues which Johnson invites in his Afterword, perhaps an overt link with our present is needed.
The Village is suspicious of strangers, so when a terrified girl, Bronwyn, turns up claiming she’d found her own village deserted on her return from a foraging trip, only the Priestess makes her welcome. Ash is wary when the Priestess entrusts Bronwyn to his care, but events soon draw them together. Bronwyn has some knowledge of ‘The Olden Days’; she somehow knows about boats, for example, or the construction of reservoirs. Ash has little notion of past or future, other than a childlike image of a kind of Heaven on Earth – ‘The Kingdom’, somewhere away to the North – which he’d seen in the crinkled pages of the Priestess’s few old books.
There is little space for comedy among the dangers of this plot, other than a nice line in irony from Bronwyn. When she and Ash realise that all the Last Villagers have disappeared and the Priestess is lying drowned in the parched pool at the foot of the valley, they head off in search of The Kingdom. Spark becomes a quest, with a series of adventures along the way. Sometimes these move the plot forwards, sometimes they are digressions, exciting in themselves. One encounter crucial to shaping the novel’s finale is with Sam, a small boy, who soon joyfully claims Bronwyn and Ash as substitute parents. Sam is an engaging character, though readers might think that his language and skill (at ‘around seven years old’) in devising and implementing a complicated plan requiring sustained deception stretch belief.
Enough here to reveal that the closing chapters feature large numbers of enslaved villagers, malice and cruelty confronted by ingenuity and heroism, and a huge explosion – all narrated with graphic energy and skills characteristic of Johnson’s impressive strengths.