Review: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World – Like a Warm Blanket of Hope

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Title: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
Author: C.A. Fletcher
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: April 23rd, 2019
Genre(s): Post-Apocalyptic
Subjects and Themes: Coming-of-Age, Animals
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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My name’s Griz. My childhood wasn’t like yours. I’ve never had friends, and in my whole life I’ve not met enough people to play a game of football.

My parents told me how crowded the world used to be, but we were never lonely on our remote island. We had each other, and our dogs.

Then the thief came.

There may be no law left except what you make of it. But if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you.

Because if we aren’t loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?

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I never thought I’d be using “cozy” and “huggable” to describe a post-apocalyptic book…and yet here we are. I went into A Boy and His Dog thinking it’d be a story about the celebration of dogs against an end-of-the-world backdrop.

I was wrong.

It’s a story about the celebration of life.

This book tackles the end of the world from an angle that I haven’t seen before in the genre, and I think what it achieves for post-apocalyptic fiction is similar to what Life is Beautiful achieves for Holocaust ones–taking what is traditionally a grim subject matter and injecting it with an astonishing amount of hope and goodness. And you can hurl the exact same criticisms for A Boy and His Dog that people do for Life is Beautiful: that it’s not dark enough, that it doesn’t portray all the horrors of the situation, that it’s too positive and hopeful.

But you know what? I don’t think there’s such a thing as too positive and hopeful. Not with stories like these.

Griz’s narration is everything. It’s companionable and warm, like you’ve been friends for your whole lives and this is just a story that he’s telling you over a breakfast table. And it’s laced with empathy and introspection that I think most book lovers can recognize and fall in love with. And he does this thing where he gets a certain feeling from looking at something or experiencing something, but he can’t quite explain it with plain adjectives, so he tries to describe around it using imagery and comparisons to other things, and I just had to pause and stare at my tablet because it reminded me so much of myself and I rarely come across characters who think like this.

But the most brilliant part of the story is how Griz rebuilds this ruined world into something new–something quiet yet wondrous–just through his narration. He comes across empty bridges and crumbling buildings and old dusty records, but he doesn’t see them as the loss of a civilization. He doesn’t think, “Look what’s become of humanity.” He thinks, “Look what humanity has achieved.” It’s one of the most beautiful examples you can get of a character creating the world.

Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), there aren’t a ton of speculative book characters that I actually want to pull into this world and be best friends with. But with Griz? Sleepovers, baking sessions, camping trips, movie nights, book discussions–I want to do them all because he is my kind of people.

That being said, I did want more scenes of Griz bonding with his dogs; I kind of thought this would be a dog story first, post-apocalypse second, but the dogs felt more like catalysts for plot development than actual characters. And the ending wasn’t as meaty as I’d hoped it would be. I wouldn’t say “disappointing” but I was expecting something with a bit more impact. I think these complaints are fairly small in the grand of scheme of things, though.

A Boy and His Dog is the feeling of snuggling under your blanket fort, listening to the rain patter outside. A book that shines a light on the small everyday things we take for granted and says, “How magical. How beautiful. How extraordinary.” And if the world ends in a fiery inferno tomorrow, I’ll rest happily knowing that Griz will be narrating the life that comes after.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley

Review: The Book of M – Beauty at the End of the World

The Book of M

Title: The Book of M
Author: Peng Shepherd
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: June 5th, 2018
Genre(s): Post-Apocalyptic, Fantasy
Page Count: 496 (hardcover)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

Post-apocalyptic books and I have somewhat grown apart in the last few years. These days, if I want my daily dose of doom and gloom, I just pop open Twitter; I don’t exactly find myself reaching for it in fiction. And in most of these stories, you’re presented with a dichotomy: you get a setting that’s bleak and grim and fraught with danger; and you get small glimpses of hope and beauty in the actions of the characters who are trying to survive it. The latter–however small or brief it may be–is what keeps the story from getting too unbearable. But these days, for me, those tiny rays of hope just aren’t enough to dispel the misery of the setting.

Peng Shepherd, however, does something with the genre I haven’t seen before, and that’s inject magic and wonder into a post-apocalyptic world.

The Book of M presents a near future where people’s shadows have begun to disappear. And with the loss of their shadows, they begin to forget. And as they forget, the world changes. Literally. You’ve forgotten that your house is supposed to have a front door? Well, now it’s gone. You’ve forgotten that animals aren‘t supposed to be able to converse with humans? Oh look, a talking bird. It’s almost like something out of a children’s fairytale–“And one day, some of the shadows decided they longer wished to be attached to the humans. And so they tugged and tugged and out they popped free, ready to have adventures of their own!”

What I love is that this is a world that’s being destroyed not by zombies or nuclear warfare, but by memories. And there’s such beauty in the way that the world is breaking. It’s in the winged deer that our characters encounter. It’s in the malformed cities and altered landscapes. It’s in the notion that our memories are so powerful, the loss of them shifts the very fabric of our universe. As the characters’ situations become more and more dire, the magical aspect becomes more and more frequent and potent, and some of the last scenes in the book are ones straight out of high fantasy. It’s spellbinding stuff.

But there’s also horror to the story. Because I think there are few things more frightening than having the world we know slowly scrubbed away until all that’s left is a vague suggestion of an outline. And what happens when you forget a specific detail of a loved one’s face? What happens when you forget that your sister had actually survived that terrible car crash all those years ago? Shepherd takes the real-life terror of Alzheimer’s and gives it an extra set of fangs, wings, and the ability to breathe fire. The result is as chilling as it is fascinating.

As we follow the point-of-view of four characters–Ory, his wife Max, Naz, and a mysterious man known as “The One Who Gathers”–in their journey across this changed America, we encounter many strange and frightening things, from cults and scavengers to a moving lake. The characters are all complex and diverse, and while I have mixed feelings about the direction that some of their relationships took, their interactions are, for the most part, quite compelling. Really, my biggest criticism is the sheer number of travel sequences, which I don’t particularly enjoy in any genre.

In the end, The Book of M is a haunting story that explores the power of memories and human connections that I recommend to both lovers and haters of post-apocalyptic fiction. It iterates the idea that we are, all of us, sums of all the people whose lives we have touched–the names and faces that etch onto our minds and form the foundation of our selves.

And it asks: what are you willing to sacrifice to hold onto them?

Review: A Trail of Lightning – Delightful Worldbuilding and Emo Villains

Trail of Lightning

Title: Trail of Lightning
Author: Rebecca Roanhorse
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: June 26th, 2018
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic
Page Count: 304 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 7.0/10

 

 

 

I had an incredibly hard time sorting out my feelings on this book and I don’t know if I can say that I succeeded. There are many aspects of it that I absolutely loved, but also ones that I really disliked. And the two overlap one another, leaving me conflicted and with a frown line that’s about to become permanent.

Let’s just begin with all the things that I loved. A Trail of Lighting is a post-apocalyptic fantasy that revolves around Native American culture and history, written by a Native American author, and for that alone it deserves recognition. Roanhorse deftly weaves Navajo mythology into a Mad Max-esque world and the result is unique and exciting.

The characters that inhabit this world are strange and vibrant. From mercenaries and medicine men, to a woman who manifests as a cat-person (and I don’t mean that she really loves cats; I mean that she has facial features and mannerisms of a cat), the story occasionally dips into a Wonderland-level of creepy and weird and I adored it to bits. And what I always look forward to in Aboriginal speculative fiction is the depiction of Coyote, the trickster figure. Because he varies from one culture to the next, no two authors write him quite the same way, and Roanhorse’s version doesn’t disappoint. With appearance and mannerisms reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi in American Gods–irreverent and dressed as a dandy–he’s probably my favourite side character.

The best urban fantasies have strong, distinctive narrative voices and this one has that in spades. Maggie’s narration is introspective, a little anti-social, and a little smoky–a-lone-ranger-staring-across-the-desert-as-the-sun-sets kind of vibe. The author uses a lot of fragmentation, which can sometimes make for choppy action sequences, but all in all, it’s highly readable and engaging.

Maggie herself is a fascinating and rather unconventional urban fantasy protagonist. She’s a monster hunter gifted–or cursed, in her opinion–with the power of speed and the ability to kill. This makes her feared and disliked by many. The entirety of the story (and probably the rest of the series) is her struggling to rein in her clan power, known as “K’aahanaánii”, and keep its bloodlust from consuming her. And the thing that I especially love is that Maggie, to some level, enjoys the killing. She loves the adrenaline and the control of it, and that comes with the baggage of guilt and self-hatred. And that’s one of my favourite kinds of stories–those of powerful men and women whose power is a double edged sword, one that comes with the risk of being devoured from the inside out. It adds extra layers of internal conflict that can potentially be catalysts for interesting character growth.

“Wow, that all sounds fantastic,” you might say. And you’re right–it is pretty fantastic!

And now here come the criticisms to rain all over this parade.

Let’s talk about the plot–or rather, the lack of one. While there’s a vague overarching goal that gets introduced at the beginning of the story, Maggie and her companion Kai spend most of their time doing the literary equivalent of accidental side quests. They travel from point A to point B, at which point something happens and they’re forced to deal with it before moving on. They end up having to constantly react to the things that happen in the world, as opposed to proactively moving the plot forward. And while some of the diversions are fun, it’s all very meandering and lacks cohesion.

Secondly, the antagonist. At the foundation of the story is Maggie’s relationship with her former mentor Neizgháni, who Maggie is kind-of-sort-of-maybe in love with. He’s built up to be this mysterious presence looming above our MC, and so much of her thought process and behaviour are rooted in this relationship that they’d had. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to meeting the man.

So imagine my bafflement when Neizgháni finally makes his entrance and he turns out to be the embodiment of the worst of the “bad boy antagonist” trope, complete with cockiness, possessiveness, no sense of personal boundary, and long, flowing dark hair. He falls under the Kylo Ren column of character archetypes–the ones who strut around with their capes (or hair) billowing and saying things like, “Join me and we will set our thrones atop the corpses of our enemies and bathe in their blood,” with zero hint of irony. For someone who’s had so much impact on the protagonist’s life, he felt incredibly shallow and campy. Picture a very pretty, very vapid Final Fantasy villain and you won’t be far off from Neizgháni.

Caius

Like Caius from Final Fantasy XIII-2, but minus the cultural appropriation.

The thing is, I don’t mind these types of characters too much in popcorn paranormal fantasy. With those, I enjoy the campiness for what it is. But a story with worldbuilding and a protagonist of this caliber deserves someone a lot better.

The ending also adds another bewildering layer to the story. Its big reveal is underwhelming and the motivations of the villain rather nonsensical, and moreover, it ends incredibly abruptly and on a not-insignificant cliffhanger.

And here’s the most confusing part of all this: I don’t dislike the book. While I did dislike so many of its individual parts, as a whole I kind of enjoyed it and actually find myself looking forward to the sequel.

Is it the most polished, exciting fantasy I’ve read this year? No.

Is it something I would recommend to people? Hell yes.

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ARC provided by Saga Press via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review