It’s been five years since T-Day; five years since those who produce high enough amounts of testosterone (mostly cis men) were infected with a virus known as t. rex and turned into predatory, humanoid monsters whose only drives are to mate and feed. Any woman who actually manages to survive being raped by the creatures and ends up impregnated can look forward to a shorter pregnancy, with the trade-off being a feral baby eating itself out of the womb. In between the cis men becoming slavering beasts and the cis women leading the fractured pockets of society exists the liminal (and precarious) space where transgender and non-binary people live, where taking testosterone or running out of androgen blockers and estrogen are now a death sentence.
Beth and Fran are women living in this space who are not only trying to avoid being murdered by the rampaging beasts roaming the country, but by the TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) led Legion who enjoy hunting, dismembering, and lynching transgender men as well. Being transwomen and manhunters (people who hunt feral humans and harvest their adrenal glands and gonads for estrogen production), Beth and Fran are in constant danger, and when a hunting trip goes horribly wrong, the pair end up relying on a loner named Robbie who reluctantly agrees to help them get back home. When Indiresh, the doctor Beth and Fran hunt for and who produces the estrogen, is offered the position of in-house doctor for a billionaire “bunker brat,” it seems like a great opportunity for security and support. Unfortunately, nothing is ever that simple and even in a dying world, prejudice, fear, and hatred still reign supreme; thus, the monsters lurking outside aren’t nearly as dangerous as the people and “allies” surrounding you.
Manhunt is an intense, emotional, and brutal post-apocalyptic horror story that is in your face in a lot of ways. The horror element (particularly the body horror) and portrayal of the testosterone monsters are descriptive, visceral, and unflinching, but so is the horror inflicted by the females in power. Like many stories set in a post-apocalypse world, most of its uncertainty, lack of safety, and sense of dread are rooted in social horror—how societal norms, prejudices, and power structures can continue to create different, but just as deadly, monsters to fight. From the testosterone rex virus sharing a name with a book about biological sex and gender, to a world where extremists only welcome “certified XX” women, and even see those who can’t be vectors but are intersex, genderqueer, transmen, etc. as dangerous to The Matriarchy because they are “upholding” the patriarchy, the social commentary is loud and clear. Manhunt tackles a lot of ugliness that is prevalent, but not talked about as often when the victims and targets are trans and queer people, especially those of color.
The blurb and narrative is clear in its goal as a “response to every gender-based apocalypse story that failed to consider the existence of transgender and non-binary people” and achieves this aim by keeping the familiar markers of the subgenre, while using under-explored perspectives, shifting first-person POVs primarily of trans characters, and having many different supporting characters from marginalized communities. Beth and Fran carry much of the story, but just as important are Indi (a larger woman of Indian decent), Robbie (a transman of Indigenous decent), and Ramona (a cis white woman in the Legion whose desires make her an outsider). The POV characters have an airport’s worth of baggage from their old lives that gets added onto instead of jettisoned as they stare down the end of the species. The characters Flecker-Martin creates are deeply complex, raw, and damaged; their interiorities, interactions, and choices are jagged, messy, and affecting and I enjoy how the narrative explores many people’s need for belonging and family and how it can be a source of salvation and peace or ruination.
Being only five years after the apocalypse and the virus not having the almost exponential spread of infection seen in many zombie/creature horror allows for examination of mindsets still entrenched in ideas/feelings from “before.” The same, classist/racist/[insert -ist] beliefs still reign supreme, with cis women who had connections and money still catered to, living sheltered lives, and acquiring estrogen for their PCOS, HRT, or other hormonal imbalances without a thought for the “dirty” underclass and “trannies” providing it, and now that the time for The Matriarchy is here, the same power grabs and oppression for those considered lesser and/or who don’t conform to a rigid definition of womanhood apply. This is one of the reasons I find the author’s chosen method of destruction to be so effective as a vehicle for annihilation and commentary—for while it is the literal end of the species and most stories show survival as being most important, people like Fran and Beth can’t put aside the heartache, trauma, and struggle of being trans because the same rhetoric and fear from before has become a realized, militarized terror to be survived as well. It also helps that Beth and Fran have a long history, complicated by their different experiences as trans women (with Fran having passing privilege and ingrained expectation of protection that Beth does not) that color their relationship and how they navigate the new world—needing each other, being friends yet not far enough from past fractures and emotional turmoil.
As effective as Manhunt is in spotlighting growing social disparities and following characters who aren’t the typical MCs, it’s also just a good end-of-the-world tale where you have some Governor/Negan faction with domination as its goal targeting people who are fighting to survive (or in this case the right to survive), including an admittedly over-the-top, yet still poignant and thematic, third-act last stand. There are a couple threads I wish were clearer and I did end up mentally tripping over some terminology and explanations about t. rex that had me dredging up memories of virology class and trying to puzzle out mechanisms like a calculating meme, but overall, it’s pretty easy to go along with the premise of the virus and how it works. That being said, even for lovers of post-apocalypse and horror, Manhunt won’t be for everyone. The amount of inner pain and almost constant self-doubt, self-disgust, and angst the POV characters feel and the unrelenting powerlessness and othering at the hands of extremists and “allies” that the trans characters experience (on top of the sheer brutality found in this type of setting) can be overwhelming at times. For me, the vividness of the characters/their journeys and simply encountering obstacles and situations I never imagined in an end of the world scenario makes it worth the read.