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Pulling the Wool over our eyes

Wool (Part One of the Wool Trilogy) by Hugh Howey (Random House, $29.99)
Reviewed by Fiona O’Kane

WoolThe Wool trilogy is a much-talked-about success story, with debut author Hugh Howey showing the world exactly how to go about writing your first novel. He started out self-publishing on Amazon, drip-feeding the release of the first book in the trilogy in sections to build his audience, and then did the same with the second. After he’d sold 400,000 copies, he got a mainstream publishing deal, whilst – very unusually – also maintaining control of the e-book rights himself. Oh, and then Ridley Scott bought the movie rights.

But does Wool live up to the hype?

Yes, it does.

This well-written book comes from an author who clearly knows his craft. The story is slick and paced well, with characters who leap off the page. At first there is a definite – and deliberate – sense of confusion as to what’s going on, as the characters themselves don’t fully understand the world in which they live. Gradually, more and more layers are revealed, and the story starts to really gather steam.

Much of the story surrounds the revelations themselves, to the point where the reader doesn’t even really know who the hero or heroine of the book is going to be. And so I’ll avoid describing the characters or the plot in any detail, so that this mystery remains undiscovered.

The story follows the inhabitants of a great underground building called a silo. Completely sealed, it was built long ago to protect the people within from the toxic environment that exists above. The air is literally poisonous, and the ultimate punishment in this society is banishment outside for ‘cleaning’. This fatal task sees victims sent out in what’s effectively a spacesuit to scrub the sensors that allow silo inhabitants a view of the outside. Unfortunately, the suits have a very limited protective lifespan, so anyone sent for cleaning is usually dead not long after finishing the job.

The first few chapters set the scene, as Howey introduces several characters and changes to the hierarchy of the silo in quick succession. He’s an expert at misdirection: just when you think you understand what’s going on, there’s an unexplained sudden death, or a new dramatic revelation that catches you completely off guard. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more compelling, as you find out additional detail about the conditions of life in the silo, depending on how high level a view the characters have been granted.

The world is rendered believable. You understand the mindset of the people who inhabit the silo, because the daily lives and routines are so well described you can smell the dirt of the farms, the smells wafting from the upstairs cafeteria, and the oily smoke of maintenance in the down deep. It’s a view of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, and it’s their perception of what that world really is that could well appeal to people who don’t usually read science fiction.

Wool is a fascinating view of a new world from an exciting writer, who really knows how to craft a suspenseful adventure. It is a little slow going at the start, until you start to figure out what’s going on, but it’s well worth persevering. This novel isn’t the worldwide success it is simply because everyone was talking about it; everyone was talking about it because it’s a really, really good book.

I’m eagerly looking forward to reading Shift (book two in the trilogy) next; look for my thoughts on that book shortly.