Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Days and Months We Were First Born

"It's the end of the world as we know it... And I feel fine..."

Okay, not literally, but close enough.  I like apocalyptic fiction, and with a mysterious plague, people dying in droves, and society falling apart almost as fast as a roller coaster on the down slide, The Days and Months We Were First Born: The Unraveling certainly qualifies.

I liked The Days and Months We Were First Born: The Unraveling, but I didn't love it.  To some degree it felt like a sketch of a book I could have loved: rough and in need of focus. 

The Unraveling is a quick read.  It comes in at about 150 pages, making it a very short novel or a novella.  In serial fiction the job of the author is to make sure each book has a complete plot arc, but at the same time the book moves the larger story arc forward.  Jim Butcher's Dresden Files is excellent at this.  Burn Notice (a TV show) is fantastic at it.  With The Unraveling, I'm just not sure where the larger arc is going.  Though we get the sense that Martin, the main character, is telling us the story from a vantage point later in time, we don't get enough sense of that later point to have a good idea of what the larger focus of the series is.

The Unraveling could just as easily be called: Escape From New York, because that seems to be the main plot.  We get the set up: almost everyone dies horribly.  We get the baby plot arc: adapt to the new world.  We know there has to be a larger plot arc because it's book one in a series, but beyond Martin survives long enough to tell his story, we don't have much of an idea of what it might be.  I think, if Hunter had stayed with just that arc, and left the reader with only the information that Martin could get for himself, this story would have been a lot stronger.

But he didn't leave it there.  About half way through the story we suddenly break away from Martin and start following a group of scientists.  Why?  I have no idea. Let me get into spoiler territory here, by the end of the story New York City will be blown up in a nuclear blast.  Now, there is no way for Martin to know why this has happened.  So Hunter breaks off from Martin's tale, half way into the story, to start adding the second plot line.  And it's not that either plot line is bad; it's just that there's no real reason for it.  There doesn't seem to be any reason for NYC to blow up.   Ninety percent of the population is dead, more is dying, everything else is devolving into chaos, there's no reason for a spectacular boom.  If it was important to the larger plot arc, we need more information to help us find that.

From a technical aspect of putting words together, Hunter's writing ranges from quite good to shaky.  Martin is telling us the story, and he's alone in a lot of it.  There's a lot of telling.  I like Martin's voice so that's not too much of an issue, but I found myself thinking a bit more showing and less telling would be nice.

When the plot line suddenly jumps away from Martin to follow the scientists, the story gets quite confusing.  Who is telling us this?  Is Martin recounting something he saw?  How?  Do we suddenly have a new omniscient narrator?  Who is the newscaster?  How do they have the power to broadcast and run a helicopter? (Electric power is almost gone, people are living off batteries.  If power is that precious, why are you using it to do newscasts?)  To add to the confusion the scientists are almost interchangeable, so keeping track of which one is which is tricky.  Then throw battle scenes on top of that.  Wrap that all up in the fact that there seems to be no reason to know what is going on, and I ended up thinking diverging away from Martin is just bizarre.

Maybe the problem is that Hunter wasn't quite sure if he was writing an apocalyptic thriller or literary fiction.    If we had stayed with just Martin, this would have been a lot closer to the lit fic side of the spectrum.  If we had met the scientists from the beginning of the book, and a reason for why we were learning what was going on had been there, it would have been a lot closer to apocalyptic thriller.  But the story with how it turned out doesn't have a snappy enough plot for an apocalyptic thriller, and the writing and emotional development isn't strong enough for lit fic.

Which is another off aspect of dealing with Martin.  There's a certain detachment to his tale which seems a bit incongruous with how he tells the tale.  He's too in touch with himself and his emotions to be shocked into numbness, yet his emotional response is too flat for someone experiencing what he's going through.  I'd believe this was Martin telling his father's story.  A story he had grown up with, but didn't personally experience, more than it's Martin telling his own story.

On a two star rating means, "It's okay."  And that's where I am with The Days and Months We Were Born: The Unraveling.  It was okay.  It had the bones to be great, but didn't make it there.

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