The book made more sense to me when I found out it was originally published and sold on-line in pieces with amazon kindle. And for the countless vanity publications that have found this to be a chilling ‘total perspective vortex’ for their obscurity, this has been massively successful. Howey does have a striking ability to charge each episode with speed/die hard/pulp fiction tension to immediately get you in, adding peaks of life-threatening action, constant cliffhanger switches between locations, and tantalising pieces of the underlying conspiracy. To some degree this bugged me – the unapologetically repeated formulaic structure felt like too much as I read this in a single edition – but it makes much more sense if you were reading this spread out over months in episodes. I read it’s been sold as a movie, but I think it’d work better as a series, with weekly separate adrenalin hits rather than trying to maintain this pace and reducing events to a couple of hours.
That being said, and even more as I look back at the completed book, I’m impressed by how well it hangs together. Sure there’s deus ex machina here and there, such as the timing of Solo’s assault, but Howey works to make sure something like this is plausible, and once he’s played that card he takes responsibility for keeping it within the story – no-one just turns up and then disappears (unlike, say, the lazy plotting in King’s The Gunslinger). It feels like Howey had the big picture worked out before he started revealing pieces, so you don’t get the random/soap opera wandering of Game of Thrones, or the ultimately silly mess of Lost or Heroes. Moreover while the level of constant high stakes revelations and desperate survival drama is almost comic in its contrivance, he gets away with it a world better than, say, Patterson’s similarly transparent First to Die – largely because he’s in a different league for the quality of his dialogue, setting, characters and the narrative ride. Moreover he has an awareness of contradiction: the characters are pretty consistent, as is the world he puts them in. It fits that his heroine is an engineer – she has to work out the logic behind what’s around her. It’s also an engaging twist that the answers are more often about solving a mechanical problem than gunplay or marshal arts skills – our heroine is way more Macgyver than Bruce Lee.
The characters are more decent movie than textured novel. That is, you can tell the main ones apart, they’ve got their idiosyncrasies, but they fall pretty much into stock categories. We have our salt-of-the-earth farmers and mechanical labourers – people who work with their hands who are tough, loyal and noble. We have our heroine – just that much more smart, strong, brave and tenacious than anyone else – oh, and just saturated in integrity. But she is likeable, you can’t help but find yourself rooting for her. And we also have our villain, who has a couple of moments where you might think there might be more to him, but at heart is essentially petty and nasty whether dealing with revolution or morning tea. Interestingly he’s pretty much it – everyone else is either actively virtuous or a dupe of the system. And while the goody/baddy dichotomy is less insightful, it does make for some cleaner transitions and final resolution.
The situations, characters and pace feels hugely cinematic, although a director (unsurprisingly) would make or break it. In terms of text, Howey made it, executing his ideas effectively. I suppose you could say the same for Matthew Reilly (another author who’s not afraid of online publishing), but while I have no desire to read any more Reilly, I’d be up for some more Howey. Just not right away. And in bits.