Posted: April 21, 2014 in Book reviews

By Hugh Howey

In some indeterminate future time, the remnants of humanity reside in a huge underground silo. The society is regimented, with various sections that, although separate from one another, are integral to the silo’s survival. Mechanical keeps the lights on, the farms provide food, there are hospitals and even theatres, and a triumvirate rules; an elected mayor, a sheriff, and IT, the section responsible for keeping the computers running lines of communication open, and for ensuring the ‘Pact’, an ancient agreement, is adhered to. Life isn’t easy, but there’s food and work for all, and some comfort is taken by being able to view the outside via cameras that are affixed to the exterior of the Silo.

Not that there is much to see, a hostile wasteland and the tops of ruined buildings over the rise. Still people like the view, especially after there’s been a ‘Cleaning’ when the view is clearest.

A Cleaning involves either a criminal, or someone who’s just had enough, venturing outside in a suit. It’s a death sentence, and the land around the Silo is dotted with bodies. Suits don’t last long in the toxic air, yet no matter who they are, or how vehemently they say they aren’t going to do it, those chosen to clean do actually clean the cameras before succumbing to the hostile environment. It’s the woollen clothes used by those cleaning from which the book takes its name.

The Cleanings are an almost cathartic release for those within the Silo, although in the past there have been uprisings, which is why much of their history has been erased.

Though working as an engineer, when the current Sheriff volunteers for cleaning, Juliette is chosen as his replacement. She’s a little too good at the job however, and when she starts digging into the Silo’s history, and a series of deaths that may well be murders, she finds herself scheduled for the next Cleaning, but as a result she will find out what’s really over the rise, and discover the secret history of the Silo.

There were a couple of things that put me off about this book before I bought it, the first was the absurd “the new Hunger Games” sticker on the front, the second was the “best thing evah” buzz that seemed to be flying about regarding it, and finally there was the size of the book, it looked like it could be a slog to read.

Well I can safely say that it isn’t the new Hunger Games. There are some similarities, but this is an altogether different beast. It isn’t the best thing since sliced bread either, which doesn’t mean it isn’t good, and whilst it is a whopper of a book, it’s not actually a slog to read, because for all its faults (and it has many) it’s incredibly addictive.

The best thing about it is the overall story and the world building. Howey has done a great job of imagining a self-contained world, and the people within it, and whilst some of the tropes he uses are familiar, a lot are quite original. Where some writers may have opted for a religious order as the true defenders of the silo’s faith, Howey instead has an IT department, and whilst it would have been tempting to have the silo ruled by fascistic blackshirts, on the surface at least the Silo is a free and democratic world, even if the truth is rather different.

The world of the silo is intriguing, as is the central mystery about what happened to the world outside, and how the silo came to be. Be warned, not every mystery is resolved, because this is the first part of a trilogy, and some reveals don’t quite hang true (take the reason why everyone cleans for example) but by the end you’ll know a lot more about the history and purpose of the silo, and it’s this aspect of the novel which is the most enjoyable.

Character wise, Howey is a little hit and miss, and annoyingly several characters you meet early on are actually more interesting than those that the bulk of the novel focuses on. Juliette is a stock, strong female heroine, and whilst you will root for her, nothing really stands out about her other than she’s a mechanical genius and overcomes a series of obstacles put in her way, obstacles that become a little repetitive at times. She also has the obligatory romance, with a man she seems to fall in love with after a couple of very short encounters. There are various other characters that flit around the novel, some of whom are more integral to the plot than others, and most of them are similarly cookie cutter’ish, although I liked Walker, the old engineer who’s managed to become agoraphobic even inside an underground bunker, and Bernard, the head of IT is interesting in terms of his motivations.

After an intriguing and engaging beginning the novel does sag quite a bit in the middle, and whilst it did keep me engaged, I couldn’t help thinking that a good editor could have trimmed a lot of superfluous narrative and made for a tauter read. It perks up towards the end, but the finale seems a trifle rushed, which seems odd given the size of the book.

Despite some drab characters and an annoying predilection for never using one word when a paragraph will suffice, Howey has created a compelling universe that I couldn’t help being drawn into, and I’m looking forward to reading the next two books. Recommended, but be prepared to be annoyed and enticed in equal measure.

  1. Pete’s read this and recommended it to me, and now you’re saying it’s good too – I shall have to bump it up my ‘To read’ list.

    • starkers70 says:

      Well as I say it isn’t the greatest thing ever (you can tell he self published it first, even I can tell it needs a hefty trim) but it is quite compelling.

  2. […] when I’m reviewing a book in a series, Shift is the second book in the Silo trilogy and sequel to Wool which I reviewed some time ago. Whilst I’ll do my best not to supply any spoilers for Shift, by necessity I will need to spoil […]

  3. […] any spoilers for Dust, however by the very nature of talking about book three I’ll talk about Wool and Shift so there likely will be spoilers for those books—you have been […]

  4. […] and twist are worth the price of admission alone, and there’s a nice hint of something akin to Wool about the world, I just wish the story hadn’t been quite so bleak, and quite so meandering. You […]

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