I love discovering new authors. It's something of a talent of mine. The Science Fiction Book Club used to help with this, exposing me to countless new authors early enough that I was often in the know about breaking books long before any of my genre minded friends. It probably helped that I read far more than most of the people in my social circle and my voracious appetite for words simply encourages my literary gluttony. But the heyday of the SFBC seems to be gone, and I see less and less new authors with mid-listers gone after just one book. So I've switched to review blogs like the excellent Staffer's Musings and Amazon. I found Hugh Howey's Wool Omnibus on Amazon for a steal and quickly dove in to his tale of a subterranean dystopia. Originally started as a series of self published novellas, Wool has gone on to win critical acclaim and has been optioned for the big screen by none other than Ridley Scott. Not that I knew any of that when I made my purchase, but I can't say I was surprised to find out about Howey's success.
Wool is set in a subterranean silo with hundreds of levels. Within the silo reside the survivors of an unknown apocalypse generations past that rendered the surface of Earth hostile to human life. Our story begins with Sheriff Halston, who has decided to commit suicide by going outside to clean. Being sent to clean is the equivalent of capital punishment in silo society. Criminals of the worst sort and all those who speak of going outside are sent outside the silo to clean the sensors that provide the only view of the outside world. Holston's wife demanded to go outside years ago, and Holston has never understood her reasons. his questions regarding her sudden change in mental state along with his long standing grief lead him to resign as Sherrif and be sent outside. When he steps outside, he is met with an unexpected sight but his protective suit fails like all others have before leaving him to die next to the withered remains of his beloved.
This opening volume of the omnibus was obviously designed as a short story and leaves the reader with more questions than answers, but Howey manages to inject Holston with enough gravitas and depth that it never feels like a cheap parlor trick. Howey's depth of characterization and choice to reveal critical information slowly keeps the reader engaged and makes for page churning pace. If I hadn't been on a vacation full of site-seeing and fantastic food, I would have finished Wool much sooner. However, my slower than usual pace allowed me to savor the world and characters of Wool and I find myself grateful for the opportunity.
The story continues with the silo's mayor travelling to the lowest depths of the structure to enlist a lowly mechanic to take the place of the deceased sheriff. Her decent by means of the central staircase that runs through the silo with the dead man's deputy gives readers a thorough understanding of life on the silo but never reads like an info dump or travelogue. Howey injects this sequence with purpose and depth by telling us about the potential sheriff through the mayor's stops to interview both her estranged father and the head of the silo's IT department who has objections to her potential appointment. Underlying all of this character and world building is a tale of yearning and romance long denied between the aging travelers. Throw in a surprise poisoning and all of the cogs of this dystopian mystery are in place to ratchet up the speed.
Newly appointed Sheriff Juliette has her hands full with a murder investigation and her own questions about her predecessor's choice to clean. She is up against the new interim-mayor and head of IT. She quickly discovers she is in over her head as she discovers a conspiracy that, if revealed, will change the lives of everyone in the silo forever. Powerful forces are aligned against her and she finds herself removed from her new position and sent back to the bowels of the silo. Determined to get to the truth, Juliette puts herself in great peril and soon finds herself sent out to clean.
Howey's characters have the same guaranteed life expectancy of George R. R, Martin's and he makes good use of this tension, leaving you to wonder when and if our heroes will meet an untimely end. And like Martin, he makes each of these characters deep enough that we always care what happens to them. Add in the fact that there is nothing heroic about these characters other than their resolve, decency, and strength and you have something extraordinary in genre fiction. There is a sense of realism in this story that many tales of this type lack. All of Howey's characters respond in ways that resonate with the reader because they like us are all too human. That is the biggest of Wool's considerable strengths.
Howey also manages to keep readers guessing, by revealing key bits of information that, while not always unexpected or shocking, always change the landscape of the story in new and interesting ways. His action sequences are rarely explosive but are almost always pulse pounding and tense. He manages to keep readers on the edge of their metaphorical seat much like James Cameron's classic Aliens. He milks claustrophobia in new an unexpected ways, especially given the underground setting of the silo.
Pacing is solid, ratcheting up after the first two installments that are sadly much shorter than the last. There is a drag in pace in the last volume, but that is largely do to its much larger size than the preceding volumes. I didn't find it distracting at all, because of my attachment to the characters and Howey's skill at world building and starkly beautiful prose. For a guy who didn't have an agent or a publisher when he first published these novellas, Howey has nowhere to go but up.
If you aren't convinced that you should read Wool yet, let me ask you a question. Answer that and you'll have your decision. Do you like to read? If the answer is yes, buy this book. Word has it the first volume, at least, is free.