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Book Review: Wool, by Hugh Howey

The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. [opening lines]

I had high expectations for Wool. It came to me well-recommended by someone whose taste overlaps well with mine, and I’d heard some of the buzz around it even before that. For those who haven’t, the author, Hugh Howey, originally published the first forty-odd pages of the book as a short story in Amazon’s Kindle store, and then wrote the rest in response to wild praise from readers. Within two years, the stories had done well enough that he got a contract to publish The Wool Omnibus (aka the original short story and four more increasingly lengthy pieces continuing the tale) through Simon and Schuster.

So when my friend put this book in my hands – post-apocalyptic fiction that’s a self-publishing success story – I started it with enthusiasm. In fact, I read through the first two stories (a little more than a hundred pages) in an evening. And then… I started losing interest.

Without getting too deep into spoiler country, I can say that Wool takes place in a community of people who live underground in a deteriorating “silo.” The external environment is so polluted that to step out guarantees a pretty quick and painful death – and, in fact, the most-feared sentence handed down by the silo authorities is execution by “cleaning,” being sent to wipe down the video sensors that give the people inside their limited view of the world outside. In the first few chapters, we learn that this straightforward punishment isn’t quite so straightforward after all – twice, in fact! And then the plot thickens…

And that’s my main problem with this book. At first, I found the post-apocalyptic detective story intriguing (what’s really happening Outside? what’s over the hills people can see from the monitors? who decides when someone should be sentenced to cleaning?), but as the story expanded, it became simplistic. The story’s principal villain, who Howley points out to the readers very early on, is a little too close to what Husband and I refer to as the Saturday Morning Cartoon style of bad guy: the cackling evildoer who says “I make these decisions because I’m better and smarter than all of you! So there!” The protagonists are likewise a little one-dimensional, with most of the more non-traditional models disappearing early in the book to be replaced with your standard issue plucky-girl troublemaker engine room monkey (see: Katniss crossed with Kaylee).

Sociologically, the story touches on some interesting issues, like the balance between government control and individual freedoms – fertility is strictly limited, for instance, because of the obviously limitations of a silo designed to hold a set number of people – and how limited resources should be parceled out – like whether it’s more risky to let the main generator continue working with damaged pieces or have a “brown-out” to fix them and risk the generator not turning back on at all. And in the “Conversation with Hugh Howey” at the end of the book, Howey notes that he worked on a large ship for several years, which explains a lot of the nice atmospheric, claustrophobic touches in the silo (as well as the fact that the engine room’s in the basement and the most high-status people live at the top ;))

I finished the book, but at about the one-third mark, I lost that feeling of “have to know what happens” that never fades for me with the best books. I completely understand the impulse to return to and extend the same universe, particularly for a series that started off as popular as this one seems to have done. That said, I think Howley might’ve been better to let the latter portions of the book “cook” a little longer; if he’d done so, he might’ve been able to keep the whole thing as engaging as the first hundred pages.

I’ve seen this happen to other authors, too, where a wildly popular first novel is followed up by a quickly-banged-together second effort that hurts the writer’s credibility. Probably something to keep in mind for all of us who have long fantasy series in our brains, that it might be worth working on the second book BEFORE you see whether the first one’s going to be a crazy success, so that you don’t feel quite as much pressure to rush your product out before people forget your name.

All that said — I’ll definitely keep an eye on this writer. His worldbuilding’s solid, he produces some interesting scenarios, and he’s got a good hand with prose. I’m curious to see what he does next.

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1 Comment

  1. Nice review…I’ll probably give it a read! I’m always looking for some post-apocalyptic fun.

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