Someone recently asked me what a five star review from me would be like, after noticing that I rarely give them on Goodreads or anywhere else. I don’t believe in never giving them at all, I simply reserve them for those few books where the wow-effect is just that little bit more mind blowing, or adds something unique and new, or sometimes for a classic that I think’s earned its timelessness or its reputation as a landmark. The second book in Howey’s ‘Silo’ series fits the first description.
I toyed with awarding it a four and saying it bordered on the magic five, but it has the benefit of the doubt – it’s a brilliant book, and that rare occurrence of a prequel that not only surpasses the book before it but acts as the second in a series without making the reader impatient for what happens in the ‘present’ of that series. A lot of the hype around Howey’s books centres around Wool as the breakthrough novel, but in humble opinion Shift deserves it more.
To the review then, also appearing on Goodreads. No spoilers here, so take a look if you’re curious.
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Shift is a cleverer book than it’s predecessor, Wool. Rather than being based in one location (namely Silo 18), Shift has interlocking stories that switch between not only silos but periods in time, as it emerges how the whole setup behind what we came to know in Wool came about. The story of Silo 1, during all parts of the novel, runs in tandem with a story set in a different silo, sometimes during the same time period and other times many years apart from it. Books like this are a risk, and Hugh Howey has won the difficult battle of maintaining not just reader interest, but total reader fascination.
Some of the development and the story behind how people came to be living underground with a toxic environment above/outside is predictable. Where Shift succeeds so brilliantly is that it doesn’t attempt to do anything especially new or innovative, but put a twist on already familiar ideas that Hugh Howey has made his own through unique and conflicted characters, and smaller surprises that come in just when you think you’ve won the guessing game about where the plot’s going.
The thin romances of Wool are this time replaced by deep and complex feelings between several different sets of people, the most prominent being between the main character Donald and his dark horse ‘working’ partner Anna. Conflicted characters are in abundance in Shift, and carried through the novel with scarily believable psychology, a helping of subtle critique for world politics and the way humans are still in conflict with each other even when involved in plans to eradicate conflict and erase mistakes.
All through the book I was reminded of how I once read that the best villains are the ones who don’t know what they really are, or if they do they find ways of justifying their actions that they genuinely believe. What Shift depicts through these people is a world where no solution comes without sacrifice of either life or principle, often touching on deeply depressing ideas, yet more often keeping the reader hooked through the signs of hope, as a number of boat rocking characters fight for their survival and for the truth behind what’s happening. Some switch sides, others draw themselves deeper into the game.
This is the stuff most prequels are missing, and the reason I’m glad I read this one. Prequels are difficult by nature – the ending of Wool is effectively a partial spoiler, yet the beauty of Shift lies in unravelling not only the mystery behind what’s going on in the controlling Silo 1, but in how the character development sets up the idea that when the characters from Wool eventually ‘meet’ with some of those we’ve come to know in Shift, there’s an overwhelming sense that the resolution of this series could come from just about anywhere. The ride that takes the reader to this point is full of guessing games despite what they already know, and the page turning quality of Wool is improved upon further by the author’s virtually flawless montage between the several gripping stories running in parallel.
Only in the last quarter of the book did I find the two interlocking stories not really complimenting each other, and a sense of inevitability making one of them slightly less than interesting, but even then the character development held my attention, as the origins of one character from Wool (no spoilers) was explored from the origins. One element of mystery in the Silo 1 story was explained in a way that was slightly hard to believe, and was almost a plot hole save for a bit of reader guessing-game, yet the same idea created part of the all too satisfying ending of Shift, with one of the best closing lines I’ve ever read in a sequel setting itself up for a screaming finale to a trilogy.
If you liked Wool you are going to love Shift. I’d pretty well guarantee it. Five star reviews do not come easily or often from me, but I award it here because above all else I just couldn’t stop reading this book. Going to work became a real bitch for two days because I would rather have just lain on my bed and devoured the whole thing in one go with no thought given to what time it was, or the outside world. Yes, the author’s use of italics for emphasis was still as irritating as a dozen mosquito bites, but the urge to scratch the itches was simply forgotten this time around.
On a fun closing note, I like unusual character names. Some people hate them, but I’ve always had a penchant for them. If used well, they can really work, and Howey gets the badge of honour during Shift. When I came across a character called Mission, I felt frozen by the sheer coolness, not to mention really jealous that I didn’t think of that as a name myself. Once I’d gotten the song ‘Mission’ by Rush out of my head and concentrated on the book again, I discovered a character who despite the name really isn’t cool, and ironically didn’t really know what mission in life he was supposed to have until conflict broke out. Mission became a character whose moments in Shift’s spotlight I now cherish. I won’t go into detail just to make sure I spoil nothing, but anyone who doesn’t feel for this young man in my opinion has a heart of stone. The end of his moment in the spotlight is stunning, and my favourite part of Shift. If the movie franchise for this series takes off, I’ll forgive the filmmakers anything else as long as they cast a good young actor as this character.