Robert Repino’s “Mort(e)” is a post apocalyptic war novel starring a cast of uplifted cats, dogs, pigs, and of course, giant ants, who, led by their omniscient queen, start an interspecies war to eradicate the human scourge from the planet.
That sounds totally ridiculous, like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” crossed with a 1950’s mutated insect movie. In Repino’s capable hands, though, “Mort(e)” is entertaining and intelligent science fiction that can be read as an adventure fantasy, but goes much deeper than that.
Mort(e) is a housecat transformed into a sentient animal with self-awareness, speech, intelligence and hands. What he doesn’t know, but comes to realize, is that this transformation is part of a centuries-old plan by the ant queen Hymenoptera to uplift animals into sentience to help the ants exterminate the human species. While the humans scatter across the planet under the ants’ onslaught, Mort(e) joins a division called the Red Sphinx and builds a reputation as a fearsome fighter under the command of the dangerous bobcat, Culdesac.
The Red Sphinx spends their time fighting the human menace while also investigating EMSAH, a human biological menace that causes animals to go crazy. Mort(e) follows Red Sphinx’s mission, but his real motive is to find his pre-transformation friend, a dog named Sheba.
His dedication to Sheba is the heart of the novel. Once a small band of remaining humans contact Mort(e) with word of a prophecy, a vision for a lasting peace, the truth about EMSAH, and news of Sheba, Mort(e) has to make some difficult choices.
A novel about warlike giant ants is pretty clear case of good versus evil, but Reino resists that. He bravely explores the grievances of the queen ant, and imagines what her alien personality would encumber. It turns out she’s been nursing a grudge for a long time, and the grudge has a cost.
“She had been on the warpath for so many centuries now, absorbing and spitting out the hatred of thousands of generations of her people, that she sometimes wondered if she would have the opportunity to appreciate the beauty and purity she would one day bestow upon the earth.”
“Mort(e)” is a terrific adventure and war fantasy set in a future where the planet has risen to overthrow the humans. Repino provides plenty of chases, battles, and descriptions of a desolated human landscape. Along the way, though, the animals have to wonder whether they are becoming the very thing they have sought to overthrow.