Sunday, May 5, 2013

WOOL OMNIBUS (Wool, #1-5)
Hugh Howey
Broad Reach Publishing
Reviewed by Carol
Five out of five stars

Forget Wool. This should have been called Forge.
Writing that's a power-punch to the gut. Direct, slow build of heat, singeing as it suddenly roars into flame. A world that feels solid, heavy, hard-edged, soldered with characters that are heated and molded into something new. This isn't knitting a scarf so much as forging a steel chain.

I absolutely love the character of Juliette, determined, essentially elemental, a person that rocks my character world. I love how all her metaphors are mechanical ones, problems and solutions both. Even though I'm completely tool-impaired, her thinking was relatable, a clear schematic of sense. "But as Bernard's footsteps receded... she felt a new resolve steel her nerves. It was like encountering a rusted bolt that refused to budge. Something about that intolerable stiffness, that reluctance to move, set Juliette's teeth on edge. She had come to believe that there was no fastener she culdn't unstick, had learned to attack them with grease and with fire, with penetrating oil and with brute strength" (p. 132).

But as organized and mechanistic as Juliette is in her world, by no means is she limited in her range of emotion: "She had made the same choices as an adult, to love without sanction, and so her hypocrisy was more keenly felt" (p.137)

Howey has a gift for understated prose, and the writing was one of pleasures of the book. With clear, straightforward language he captures subtlety of emotion and action. The funeral scene just about made me weep:
"But then, the lowering of the body and the plucking of ripe fruit just above the graves was meant to hammer this home: The cycle of life is here. It is inescapable. It is to be embraced, cherished, appreciated. One departs and leaves behind the gift of sustenance, of life... We are born, we are shadows, we cast shadows of our own, and then we are gone. All anyone can hope for is to be remembered two shadows deep" (p.158)

I absolutely loved all the little connections linking the sections. I was particularly fond of the shadow imagery and the chain imagery. A moment in the uprising solidly hit the connection:
"It startled Knox, this sudden link to a mysterious past. And it wasn't that terribly long ago, was it? Less than two hundred years? He imagined, if someone lived as long as Jahns had, or McLain for that matter, that three long lives could span that distance. Three handshakes to go from that uprising to this one" (p.321)

Sophisticated in its ethics and philosophy. Although I expected something unusual given the buzz, I was still astounded at what I found. While it is not a novel I would read again and again (that's what Kate Daniels is for), it's powerful and worth a second read.

Thoughts on the Omnibus:
Wool: Stunning in its character development. Introduces the psychology of the people in the intimate space through the story of the sheriff and his dead wife. Romantic, tragic, doomed; truly a hint of Romeo and Juliet.
Wool Two, Proper Gauge: Compelling mix of character and plotting. Mayor and Deputy find renewal during the search for a sheriff. Using the climb gives a terrific tour of the physics and politics of the silo without infodump.
Wool Three, Casting Off: Juliette takes center stage, struggling in isolation in her new job. Powerful discoveries mean the pattern starts to come together.
Wool Four, The Unraveling: The overarching structure clarifies, like being able to see a map zooming out. Delicious ending line of kickassitude.
Wool Five, The Stranded: Action packed tension. Delicately balanced characterization means no villains here. And I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will never go cave/wreck diving.

Recommended for: dystopia fans, revolutionaries, thoughtful fantasists

Five dust-smudged and elusive stars.

Also published at Goodreads and

Justice at the point of a lance

The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France
Eric Jager
Published by Broadway, 2004

Reviewed by Sesana
4 out of 5 stars

One man accuses another of a crime. The other denies it, and accuses the first of filing a false charge against him. Forensics aren't an option, and it's one man's word against another's. How do you decide who's telling the truth? In medieval France, the two men may duel to the death to prove who is truthful, because God will protect the honest man and help strike down the dishonest man.

This book relates the story of the last trial by combat sanctioned by the French government. The case is pretty simple: Jacques le Gris is accused by Jean de Carrouges of raping his wife. This is primarily seen as a crime against Carrouges, and not his wife, Marguerite. A quick word of warning: the assault itself is rather graphically spelled out. I presume this is because Marguerite gave very detailed and consistent testimony. But it is pretty disturbing, and I imagine it could be triggering. Was it necessary? No, not really, unless the point was to show just how sure she was of what happened.

The entire book is very detailed, and in a good way. Jager has obviously done tons of research, and clearly loves his topic. We know exactly what oaths were sworn when they went to combat, among other things. It makes it feel real in a way that a drier account of the same events would not. Sure, Jager could have skimmed over less important details, if he'd really wanted to. But we wouldn't have the same sense of place. And actually, it can be a thrilling read. This is the sort of book I'd recommend to people who like historical fiction, but don't read much history.

I have one very small issue with the book. Apparently, Marguerite later became the victim of an effort to clear the name of le Gris through slandering her, claiming that another man later confessed to having assaulted her instead. The book very nobly clears up that bit of slander by exposing it as an outright fabrication. The author also takes up Marguerite's side by pointing out that she pressed her suit, against overwhelming odds and the threat of death (if le Gris had been found not guilty through trial by combat, she would have been burned at the stake) and maintained a very consistent story. What it does not do is point out the underlying sexism here. It drives every turn of events from the assault itself to how it had to be prosecuted to the aftermath. I feel like the book is incomplete without addressing the institutional sexism that made everything we read here possible.

Also reviewed at Goodreads.