Okay, so supposedly, when you see a bad review, it's a case of the book not living up to the expectations of whomever purchased it. That makes sense. You rarely see reviews that state something like, "I absolutely loathe horror stories. So in a masochistic fit I picked up Seven Co-eds Get Horribly Murdered In A Haunted House. It was a horror story. I hated it." (And if you do write that review, you deserve to be smacked upside the back of the head Gibb's style.)
No, usually bad reviews go something like this: "I purchased Seven Co-eds Get Horribly Murdered In A Haunted House because I love horror stories, and there were a bunch of great reviews. Then I cracked it open. I don't know what the other reviewers were smoking while they read it, but it didn't live up to the hype."
So, you see a book, you read the write up, you check out and the reviews and develop expectations. You read the sample and develop more depth to your expectations. Having done that, I expected The Judas Syndrome to be Red Dawn redone with a whole bunch of teen stoners.
Unlike the potential negative reviewer, I was very pleased to see my expectations were not met.
I'd say the first quarter of the book followed the traditional post-nuclear Armageddon script pretty closely. We meet the main characters and the secondary characters. We see them party and do a ton of drugs. They come home and find the world has been blown to smithereens. They huddle together for survival. Up until this point it looks like a sophisticated version of many teen fantasies of life hiding out with your buddies, an unlimited supply of drugs, no parents to kill the buzz, and enough danger to keep everything interesting.
And then the story begins to shift. We move from teen fantasy mode into metaphysical questioning mode. We go from nothing deeper than getting laid and the next joint to an in depth exploration of a psyche at the breaking point.
This is not a light fluffy read with a happy ending. The title, which I barely paid any attention to when I was thinking about the book before I read it, is a warning about how it's going to work out. Joel, is a frighteningly well done psychological profile of a man slowly burning out and arising from the ashes not a phoenix, but a devil. The world is gone. Family and most friends have died horribly. As the seven month course of the book continues, more friends die. This is more stress than most people could possibly handle, add in the paranoia inducing effects of large quantities of cannabis, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
It's a compelling read, heartbreaking, but emotionally very, very real.
There are however, aspects of the story I found jarring and out of place. Joel and his friends are too young. They're high school seniors, seventeen or eighteen years old. And while I do not subscribe to the belief that all teens are twits, I can say that all the teens I've personally met who were as interested in drugs and partying as these kids were twits. They needed more time to grow up. College seniors would have worked better, post-grad students, better yet. Basically, I just ignored how old they were supposed to be, and mentally advanced them to twenty-six ish, it made the story work a lot better.
What actually happened seemed quite fuzzy, too. We know the terrorist mastermind had nukes. We learn he had a lot more than anyone thought he did. We know Joel and his buddies live in some middle of nowhere farming community, 200 miles from the nearest big city. When they get back from their camping party weekend, they find town destroyed, sort of. People are dead, some of them. Some look like they died peacefully in their sleep. Some are covered in burns. Some are running around looting. Some places the buildings have burned and cars are toppled. Some are just fine. What happened? Is this some sort of fall out from a bomb over 200 miles away? Did the terrorist have enough weaponry to go after little, middle of nowhere farming communities? And why didn't any of Joel's group come down with radiation sickness?
Joel's home and a nearby barn are perfectly set up for surviving the apocalypse it turns out. And while I get Poetl didn't want to spend too much time dealing with the physical hows of survival, the set up was just a bit too convenient. It's not only that everything is already set up with generators, but that they also manage to find a tanker truck filled with gasoline so they could run those generators.
What Poetl did want to spend time on was ripping away everything Joel knew or believed about himself. He built his character up, turned him from a lay about stoner into a leader, and then as stress piled on stress, turned him into a paranoid addict. And from there things only get worse. As I said earlier, not a light and fluffy read.
Joel is the only fully developed character of the lot. And I'm not sure if this is intentional or not. We get the story from Joel's POV. So are two dimensional secondary characters an indicator of lazy writing or of Joel's inability to really see and understand the people around him? Part of the reason I'm not sure if this is intentional or not is that the writing as a technical matter of grammar and construction ranges from great to error prone. When I see technical mastery of prose, I assume that things like the shallow secondary characters when told with first person POV is intentional. When it's not, I'm not sure if it's another indicator of sloppy writing or an indicator of deep writing with limited technical skills.
Voice, assuming you pretend Joel is twenty-six, is well done. Action scenes are believably chaotic. (Though, as others have indicated, the sudden military prowess of a crew of high school seniors wasn't.) Joel's descent into self-destructive madness was extremely well done. You almost don't notice he's slipping away because he doesn't notice he's slipping away. The ending isn't much of a shock. Once you realize the title isn't kidding, and the last line of the description really isn't kidding, you know how this is going to end. And while not a shock, it still evokes the pain of losing a character you wanted more and better for.
More careful editing, and more attention to making the setting/characters match the gravity of what happened, and this would have been a five star book. As it is, I'm comfortable calling this four stars.