Paperback, 326 pages
Self-published by Hugh Howey, 2014
ISBN: 9781494904487 (first edition)
Blurb from the back of the book: We live across the thousand dunes with grit in our teeth and sand in our homes. No one will come for us. No one will save us. This is our life, diving for remnants of the old world so that we may build what the wind destroys. No one is looking down on us. Those constellations in the night sky? Those are the backs of the gods we see.
What I liked:
I realize that blurb is pretty vague – but it’s quite poetic so I wanted to include it. This is definitely a dystopia, somewhat similar to his Wool series (check that out, if you haven’t), where the world we live in today is gone and the earth is covered in sand. The cities we used to inhabit have been completely covered in sand and the remaining colonies of people struggle to eke out lives amid the dunes and keep the sand from burying them. This book specifically takes place on top of what used to be Colorado and the story focuses around one family: Vic and Palmer are divers who swim through the sand like scuba divers, rummaging for useful items from the past. Their younger brother Connor wishes to be a diver too, but he’s stuck hauling buckets of sand away from the town well, while keeping an eye on the youngest brother, Rob. Their mother, Rose, owns and works at the local brothel that her husband left her when he disappeared into No Man’s Land. I enjoyed Howey’s concept and I also like that he chose to focus on the dynamic of one family and how this world affected them.
I enjoyed the character development in this book – the struggle that Palmer and his family were living through was obvious and it affected not only their lives, but their family dynamic. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but Vic and Palmer are divers and they spend their time beneath the sand, scavenging, discovering and trying to earn money for their finds. Because of this and the fact that their mother runs the brothel, leaves Connor at home with his brother Rob. He failed diving school, and as a result spends his days attending school and hauling buckets of sand away from the town well so that everyone can still have water to drink. He often feels neglected by Vic, Palmer and his mother. He struggles between wanting to leave everyone behind, yet remain present for Rob, who will only be left in Connor’s position if abandoned by another family member. Connor can still remember their past life – before their father left, when they had money and a better home – whereas Rob remembers nothing and has only known their little hut, slowly filling up with sand. Each character felt unique, yet they were all in some part deeply affected by the loss of their father.
Here’s a little preview of the world they live in:
“What had once been rafters holding up a roof were now floor joists in Palmer’s house. Someone else’s house stood below theirs, long abandoned and unclaimed. Soon, his own home would be someone’s basement and this a sand-filled cellar. And so it went, sand piling up to the heavens and homes sinking toward hell.”
There’s more to this world than Howey touched on in this book, and I’d love to find out more. Personally, I wonder if this is somehow in the same universe as his Wool series – maybe even farther in the future? There’s almost no explanation as to how the world came to be this way – I’d love to know how it all started, yet by not detailing that, Howey allowed me to follow my own theories. While I’m curious, I can also appreciate the lack of an origin-type story because it could take up too much time explaining whatever happened and pull the reader away from the current events at hand.
What I didn’t like:
Howey includes footnotes for vocabulary words the people of this world sometimes use, such as scoop – sand that collects in boots. However, these footnotes just highlight other words for sand. I understand that the people living in this world are essentially covered in sand every day – so they have words for different types, such as what collects in your boots, what falls off your clothing, what gathers in your house. While I do think that’s a valuable element in his world-building, I don’t think the footnotes were essential, and I would have rather been given more information on other parts of the story, like how the dive suits work for example.
Speaking of dive suits, I have to say that I didn’t get a clear picture of them or how they really functioned. What I imagined were silver scuba suits, with air tanks on the back and then some sort of digital screen covering a person’s face. But Howey mentions wires and bands strapped to foreheads or hands or wrists and at times I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to picture. These suits are an integral part of the story, as they allow the wearers to dive below sand, almost as though it were water, and somehow mentally manipulate it. I really enjoyed what Howey was doing with the suits, but I wish there had been a little more explanation as to their function, as I found them very interesting.
While I didn’t get instantly sucked into this book the way I did with Howey’s Wool series, I was compelled to keep reading, though the going was a little slow. The ending left me wondering if he might try to write more books in this world. If he does, I will read them because there are definitely a few unanswered questions and since I enjoyed the characters I’d like to see more of them. I don’t think this book was as strong as what Howey created in Wool, Shift and Dust, but it’s not a bad book, by any means. I’m going to continue reading his work and if you haven’t read anything by him, I suggest you check him out!