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“Dust” by Hugh Howey


I found the first two books in Hugh Howey’s Silo trilogy to be a bit mixed in terms of quality. “Wool” had started very strongly before developing a few flaws later on but still managed to be a compelling story in a fascinating setting. Unfortunately, Howey then decided that the second book in the trilogy should be a prequel which seemed obsessed with explaining things that were better left unexplained and featured a largely new cast of characters who were far less interesting than the characters in Wool. The concluding book tries to tie together the plotlines from the two earlier books into a coherent story, with some success although it still suffers from some of the second book’s weaknesses.

To begin with there is a welcome return to Jules’ story, which was at the heart of the first book. Unfortunately, it is interleaved with chapters following Donald (and his newly awakened sister), who I thought was a confused and frustrating character in the second book. This part of the storyline is arguably more important to the overall plot than Jules’ story so it’s unfortunate that it’s hard to care what happens to him except for how what he does would impact on the other characters. I don’t find his character development to be particularly convincing, since he seems to alternate between being passive and incurious until the plot demands that he has to do something when he suddenly becomes impulsive and fond of dramatic actions. I do think his chapters are a bit more bearable this time round due to the addition of a couple of saner characters, particularly his sister.

I think Jules’ story arc is the best part of the book, although even that isn’t without a few problems. Her romance with Lucas is still painfully unconvincing and he still fails to be an interesting character, but since they don’t spend too much time together in the book it isn’t a huge problem. Some of the supporting characters can be a bit two-dimensional but there are also some good bits of characterisation, Solo especially gets some good character development. The book gets off to a relatively slow start as Jules tries to rally the people of the Silo behind her latest schemes, but the pace then abruptly picks up as a disaster puts the survival of the Silo under threat. This is the most compelling part of the story; Howey’s storytelling does seem to be at its most effective when his characters are under extreme pressure. The flow of the story is interrupted a bit by a distracting and seemingly unnecessary subplot involving a religious cult who thinks Jules’ actions are blasphemous. The inclusion of this does seem a bit odd when the first two books had ignored the Silo’s Priests except for brief mentions.

I thought the conclusion of the story was a fitting ending to the series’ storylines and one that builds on some of the themes going back to the first short story in Wool. It is also an emotionally satisfying conclusion, hopeful but with an undercurrent of tragedy given how much death and destruction has occurred during the series. Given Howey’s tendency to over-explain the history of the Silo it is gratifying that he leaves the ending being relatively open-ended and leaves many questions remaining about how things would develop in the future.

Overall, I’d say the ending and the better parts of the final book largely manage to make up for some of the stumbles the series has had along the way. It’s a pity the series couldn’t maintain the quality of the early stories in the Wool omnibus, but I think it’s still good enough to be worth reading despite the flaws.

Rating : 7 / 10


“Shift” by Hugh Howey


I enjoyed “Wool” a lot; while it did have occasional flaws I thought it was a compelling story in a distinctive and memorable setting. Since the ending of Wool was an obvious set-up for the sequel it’s slightly surprising that the second book in the trilogy is actually a prequel, beginning centuries earlier with the establishment of the Silo and ending with the final scene in Wool being told from a different perspective.

It’s an unusual move for the middle book in a trilogy –technically it is three short stories in the middle of a series of novellas, but the stories have a common thread running through them so the Omnibus edition does feel like a novel. I think there are some understandable reasons for having a prequel since it does set up some major plotlines for the final book, but I also think it is in many ways a mistake.

I think the biggest problem with this prequel (and many other prequels) is that it spends a lot of time explaining things that didn’t need to be explained and which, in many cases, were better left unexplained. One of the strengths of the first book was that to begin with the Silo was a strange and mysterious world and even by the end of the story there were still some mysteries left unexplored. Unfortunately, the author seems to have decided that every detail of the background, no matter how trivial, needs to be explained despite the fact that the explanations often don’t add anything to the series and aren’t particularly interesting to read. I doubt many readers were really desperate to see the moment when a character decided on the design of a book cover for a book that we see in Wool, but there is a scene in the first story where this is shown, admittedly it’s a brief scene and other it does serve other purposes but it still seem an unnecessary thing to include in the book. I think the biggest problem with explaining so much about the world is that the more explanation is done the less plausible it all seems. This is particularly true in the first story which partially takes place before the apocalyptic event that lead to the society of survivors being established in the Silo. The basic premise of the cause of the apocalypse isn’t too bad, but although a lot of time is spent explaining why various characters took a decision to do the things they did none of the explanations are sufficient to make their decisions seem plausible. I don’t think it would have been impossible to make their actions sound vaguely plausible (although far-fetched), but the characterisation is too weak to make it work with none of the characters feeling as well-developed as the protagonists in Wool. The conspiracy that plays an important part also seems implausible, the book does attempt to justify this by having one character argue how easy it could be to hide a big secret, but that seems like a weak attempt to distract from how unlikely it is that so many people are willingly involved with such a crazy team and how nobody else seems to notice what is going on. The world-building is also unconvincing, it is meant to begin about 40 years in the future but apart from a couple of scientific advances the world barely seems to have changed.

I think Howey’s strength seem to be scene (which made up much of the first book) which show a character or a small group of characters trying to do what is right while under extreme pressure. He doesn’t seem to be as adept at scenes which need to portray a wider world and he sometimes seems to struggle with character interactions. The under-written romance between Juliette and Lukas was the weakest part of the first book and the second book has similar problems. Donald is the protagonist for much of the book but his interactions with other characters seem to vacillate between him being placidly allowing himself to be manipulated (while apparently being incapable of noticing that other people have agendas) and occasionally taking abrupt and decisive action when the plot demands it. I think his journey from being a dupe to trying to take control of the situation could have been an intersecting character arc but it felt like we were told that he has suddenly gained the ability to take control of his own destiny but we weren’t really shown why he is suddenly more capable than he was at the start of the book. It can be interesting for a book to have an unlikely hero, but it’s more of a problem when he’s also an unbelievable hero.

The prequel storyline isn’t entirely unnecessary. It does introduce some interesting new aspects including some mysteries which are presumably going to be explained in the concluding book in the series. I think some sort of prequel may have been justified, but it’s a pity that it spends too much time focusing on the wrong things.

Although much of the book does focus on Donald’s story, two inhabitants of the Silo, Mission and Solo, also get their own plotlines, with Solo’s story being a prequel to his appearance in Wool. I think these parts of the book worked better because it allows Howey to return the type of story he seems most comfortable with. Solo’s story in particular shows how prequels can work well, even though we know how things are going to turn out and there are few revelations it does still manage to have some powerful and poignant passages, and he is a more compelling character to read about than anyone in Donald’s plotline.

In summary, this is a frustrating book which spends a lot of time trying to give explanations which are both unnecessary and unconvincing. It was still entertaining to read and did have some good sections (Solo’s story probably being the best bit of the book) and it does set things up nicely for the concluding book in the series, but overall it is a bit of a disappointment. Hopefully the final book in the trilogy will be a return to form that manages to recapture some of the strengths of the first book.

Rating 5/10


“Wool” by Hugh Howey


“Wool” is a collection of five connected short stories where the first story establishes a compelling premise and despite occasional missteps the quality remains high throughout the collection. The first thing to grab the attention is the fascinating setting, a society surviving inside an underground bunker, hiding from a poisoned world that will kill anyone who steps outside the door. Although there is some variety between the plotlines in the different stories behind all of them stands the shadow of the ultimate threat in that world, the Cleanings where someone is sent outside to clean the lens of the cameras that allow the inhabitants of the Silo their only glimpse of the devastated outside world, those Cleaners never surviving outside for more than a few minutes. Much of the book focuses on the suspicions that a few people have that there is more to the ritual of the Cleaning than initially meets the eye and it does deliver some of the book’s most memorable moments, particularly the contrasting emotions at the end of the first story. There is a very effective atmosphere of oppression and paranoia throughout the book as Jules, the main character in three of the stories, begins to realise that there is a conspiracy to conceal the truth about her world. There is a series of revelations throughout the book, each revealing a bit more about the world while often also raising new questions to be answered.

The Silo is a fantastic setting for a book, in the first story we have little idea of the scale of it but the scope of the book gradually expands as the book goes on with the second story’s journey from the top to the bottom of the Silo offering an intriguing exploration of an isolated society desperately trying to work together to survive. One of the greatest achievements of the world-building is that it makes it seem plausible that a society could survive in such conditions and even prosper. At first it is unclear how this situation came about but as the book goes on some of the characters gradually discover more about their history, some of this history is a bit lacking in detail but I guess it will be explained further in the sequel.

For the most part the characterisation is good, although occasionally it is a bit flawed. Most of the book is told from the perspective of four characters, Sheriff Holston, the Mayor Jahns, Jules and Lukas and the first three are compelling protagonists. Jules is the protagonist for most of the last three stories and she is a memorable and well-developed character who is very capable with a variety of skills and a massive amount of determination but still someone who makes mistakes, for example she is initially a bit too naïve about how ruthless the people controlling the Silo could be. The Sheriff and the Mayor in the first two stories don’t get quite as much character development but the author does managed to make them compelling characters in a short time and they do have some of the most poignant and emotional moments in the books. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for Lukas much which is a problem, particularly in the fifth story where he plays a significant role in the plot. He’s not an unrealistic character but neither is he a particularly interesting one to read about and one of the most unconvincing things in the novel was the rushed and underdeveloped romance between him and Jules where it is hard to see what she sees in him or why they feel so strongly about each other when they barely know each other. The true villain of the story is the system by which the Silo is run but Bernard, the Head of I.T. who is as close as the story gets to a personification of the system, is an effective antagonist who is in equal parts pathetic and menacing. There are some good supporting characters, although some of them could have benefited from a bit more development such as Peter, Jules’ deputy, who plays an important role in the plot but is enigmatic for most of the book.

One of the things that is often mentioned about the book is that the stories were initially self-published by the author (although the edition I read was after he signed with a traditional publisher). Despite the unconventional route to publication it compares well to traditionally published books, the quality of the writing is generally high.

I think this is a strong collection of stories all the way through although perhaps the fifth story is the weakest, relying too heavily on the irritating Lukas and also suffering from previous stories having revealed many of the mysteries. The book has a satisfying ending, but one which sets thing up intriguingly for the sequel.

Rating : 8 / 10