Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Review: Wool by Hugh Howey

Get your copy here.

I had many reservations about reading this book. I'm not a huge fan of science fiction as a genre because it has a tendency to be painfully bleak. I read to escape the bleakness of reality, and when it resurfaces in my fiction, it better be freaking awesome or I'm jumping ship.

So when I started reading this book, I was instantly wary. The plot centers around a population of people driven to live in an underground silo by a disaster that has rendered the surface uninhabitable. Now it is forbidden to speak about the outside world. The punishment for expressing a wish to go outside is to get exactly what you asked for: they send you outside in a suit that will enable you to live just long enough to clean the camera sensors that let the silo see the world's surface. Then the toxic air eats away your suit and your flesh, and the oxygen runs out, and you become just another corpse decorating the silo's view of the surface. These executions are called "cleanings." 

Original image found here

After being introduced to the silo's preferred manner of justice and the tragedy unfolding in the first few pages of the book, I almost put it down and went on with my life. Maybe this genre just isn't for me, I thought. But I hate giving up on anything, so I decided to press on, to give it a little longer to prove to me that the brilliance of the writing was worth the gentle well of depression building up in the back of my mind. 

And in the next point-of-view section, I was utterly hooked. Even as the plot went trouncing along my feels in lead boots for a second time, I was too engrossed by the elaborate world of the silo to even think about giving up on the book. And then I met Juliette, and subsequently her star-gazing friend, Lukas, and I was at its mercy.

The world Howey creates is incredibly rich and imaginative, the details making it resonate with authenticity. For instance, in the silo, people who are apprentices learning a trade are called "shadows" and those who teach them are called "casters." When you train apprentices, it's called "casting shadows." The different levels are all engaged in varying trades, from the mechanics of the down deep to the farmers on the hydroponic farms all the way to the IT level with its mysterious hum of servers doing God only knows what. And up and down the winding staircase that conveys the inhabitants from one level to the next, porters run on strong legs to deliver goods and messages. 

The characters I met in the first half of the book captured my imagination and made me love them. Holston, Marnes, Jahns... I felt like I knew them, and I cared deeply about what happened to them. And Juliette, a mechanic from the down deep, was a triumph, in my mind. It's always refreshing to see a pretty female character who doesn't exist just to be a male character's eye candy. She was strong-willed and smart without being grating, and self-sufficient and independent without being too in-your-face feminist. In short, she was exactly the way I like my female characters, and so few authors do that type justice.

However, this review ends with four stars rather than five because, after a promising start and an engrossing middle, it was all I could do to make it through the end. Too many fatalities among the more interesting characters, with the plot then scattering survivors and taking away their more intriguing interactions. The relationship I was most interested in seemed like it was only being developed off-camera, which was incredibly frustrating, because I'd been dying to watch it grow and I never really got the chance to. The struggle became monotonous, and I ultimately ended up skimming to the end to see what happened.

Still, I stand by my four stars. If you look through my reviews, you'll see I tend to be stingy with my stars, and usually a so-so ending would leave me thinking that three stars is generous enough. But because the characters were so wonderfully developed, the world was so incredible, and the book captivated me for over 300 pages, it definitely deserves four stars. And I would still highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre, or even to skeptics who, like me, don't normally think sci-fi is for them. Judging from all of the five-star reviews and Howey's enormous success, it may be that I am one of the few who was troubled by the ending, whereas you might think it was utterly fantastic. And regardless of how you feel about the final destination here, the journey is definitely worthwhile.