After reading Wool I looked at the author’s website to find that Hugh Howey is as good at writing articles as he is at writing fiction. I already knew he was known for inviting his fans to send him emails and replying when he gets time, and is active on certain writing forums sharing advice with other self published authors. In the last week he’s published two website articles I’d recommend:

http://www.hughhowey.com/renting-vs-owning/

and

http://www.hughhowey.com/christianity-and-homosexuality/

Whether you agree or not, the guy’s an interesting thinker.

Anyway, to the fiction…

A Review of Wool by Hugh Howey

Wool is a book I wonder why I didn’t get to sooner for two main reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that it’s become something of a celebrated example in the self publishing trade of what happens when an author really strikes it right. The second, and simpler reason, is that not only is it really good, but it’s a book I can rip to bits for its flaws and yet still award a four star review to, because for me its virtues come shining through.

Any story about people living below ground with the surface world a forbidden mystery was bound to evoke memories of The Penultimate Truth by Phillip K Dick, but the two are really only similar for this one reason, and perhaps one other concerning the use of certain technology (I’ll avoid spoilers). Wool is the kind of sci-fi where the fiction comes first and the science acts largely as its backup, and the reader should easily share the desire of certain characters to answer ‘What’s beyond what we can see?’

Let’s get the flaws out of the way, starting with the most irksome: Howey’s use of italics for emphasis in both narrative and dialogue is awful. The emphasis italic is overused again and again, and in the most unnecessary and ineffective of places. I’ve forgiven many of my favourite authors for this flaw (Stephen King in particular annoys me with it in his earlier work) and I’ll put my author head on here and admit that this may be a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but Wool would read better if the author let the reader decide where the emphasis, particularly in a character’s thoughts, should go.

One reviewer I read said that the under-developed and unconvincing romances between certain characters in Wool were even worse than the romances in Twilight. While I wouldn’t be quite that harsh I can sympathise with such a reaction. I never felt sympathy for a character just because someone they loved was either gone or badly affected by the novel’s events, nor was I particularly convinced by Lukas Kyle’s infatuation with Juliette, the protagonist. Several characters died before their deeper, inner life could really come out, just as they were starting to feel like people rather than a name serving a particular function in the silo. The human attachments were often fleeting and only there to serve the purpose of giving characters a reason to act in certain ways. The attempts at affectionate dialogue between many of Wool’s couples did nothing to help this stagnant chemistry, and dialogue in general really isn’t the strong point of this novel either. Everyone’s voice ends up sounding the same, and half the conversations are driven by advancing the plot or working out a problem. Wool has been optioned for a film adaptation and any screenwriter adapting it would probably deaden the impact were they to copy every conversation faithfully from the source novel.

That said, Wool will probably be brilliant on the screen – in the right hands, its page turning quality would translate perfectly into two hours on the edge or a seat. Forget the italics and the unconvincing love lives and some of the dialogue, because Hugh Howey has mastered the art of suspense creation. The copy I read had a sticker on the front quoting The Times calling Wool ‘the next Hunger Games.’ On the face of it, Wool is nothing like The Hunger Games, yet I found myself liking it for similar reasons. ‘The what’s in District 13’ of The Hunger Games isn’t so far removed from ‘What’s over the hill’ or ‘What are IT hiding?’ of Wool.

The mystery that surrounds the ‘cleaning’ procedure, the reasons it happens, and what the people in charge are hiding create the perfect ‘read to find out’ page turner, delivered with a fine authorial control. Wool is the kind of book where the reveals are drip fed, and the information comes at just the right time. The third person narrative was a perfect choice because the switches between the interlocking, character-driven stories prolong the suspense, with the timing of cliffhangers equally perfect.

Despite there being some moments where characters have seemingly instant revelations, I did not feel as though I shared the epiphany with them but rather spent a lot of time wondering whose side I should really be on. It’s hard to discuss this in detail without spoilers, but it’s fair to say that although Juliette is the ‘sympathetic’ character of the novel, there’s a fair amount of sympathy to be had even for the people opposing her in places. Wool’s greatest virtue is perhaps that the reader is subtly invited to question how they would behave in such a world. The characters in Wool do not seem ignorant, misguided or purely evil so much as a product of a society set up so the citizens do not and cannot completely understand it. A dystopic sci-fi novel like this is hard to pull off given the number of times it’s been done before, and Howey’s success is that the underground silo world of Wool is curiously believable.

I’m spoiling nothing why I say that one of the first questions I asked, once I’d gotten a feel for Wool’s setting, was why there were no elevators in an underground world with over one hundred floors. Did no designer ever think about ease of access? This question is never asked by anyone in the book, nor explicitly answered, but the possible answers are all there for the reader to think about anyway. Rather than being a novel where technology solves all the problems, the population of Wool are often battling with a distinct lack of it. (On a sidetrack, how many sci-fi novels are there where people are actually seen walking up and down stairs as often as the characters in Wool? The exhausting climbs many of them make did put me in mind of the fifty odd flights of stairs that sadly finished off the late Stieg Larsson.) As much as I like tech-heavy sci-fi, reading Wool was a refreshing change from it, and the unspoken elevator question was my favourite example of how the novel had subtleties despite seeming obvious. It’s the questions that will most likely stay with most readers after they’ve finished it, and perhaps even serve as the bait to read the rest of the series, rather than simply the ‘what happens next?’ that’s usually left as sequel bait.

Wool feels unconventional as a novel in that the protagonist is not fully introduced for the first eighty or so pages. The obvious reason is that it was originally serialised, and it does make me wonder if the author started out with one protagonist (namely Mayor Jahns) but decided on Juliette as the central focus instead. If this were the case then the switch was a good one. In a world where so much writing advice goes around about introducing a sympathetic character from page one, it was nice to see the rules broken. I spent a lot of time wondering if the first section with Holston could simply have been cut and relegated to concise backstory, so that what he discovers would be unknown to the reader until Juliette takes over the unravelling of the mystery. It would have been a pretty rewarding surprise in the middle of the novel, but even as I write this I find myself still liking the unconventional structure, and the conflict surrounding the descent to the levels of Mechanical which eventually introduce the protagonist.

Not to mention the early scenes with Holsten are beautifully written, with a slight of hand from the author that switches from despair to hope and back again many times – another of the factors in the entire novel’s appeal. Certain ideas are introduced (the Pact, the lottery, the law enforcement structure just to name three) and then time is taken to fully explain them rather than information being dumped in great long paragraphs.

Wool deserves its success. I was chasing the kind of dazzling brilliance I got from Hyperion and Ender’s Game (very different books though they are) and didn’t quite get that same wow effect I’d hoped for, but I did get several hours of pure page turning enjoyment that made me ask big questions and took me to school on the art of suspense writing. I wrote an email of thanks to the author, from a small time writer to a big one, saying that for all I could criticise about the book, it genuinely did inspire me. I look forward to reading more from Hugh Howey.

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