Review of “Sand” by Hugh Howey

This outstanding story takes place in the former West, barely recognizable because it is covered by deep sand. It is a constant struggle to keep sand out of every unprotected opening, and to mine water and oil from far below the shifting surface.

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Sand divers have learned to use special equipment to plunge into the sand and recover treasures from the deeply buried cities that they can sell to buy food and water for themselves and their families. But sand diving has another appeal for its skilled practitioners. Palmer, one of the protagonists who comes from a family of sand divers, lived for “that razor-thin line between insanity and good sense.” He explained:

Once the sand enveloped him, Palmer felt the exhilaration a dune-hawk must feel in flight, a sense of weightlessness and liberation, the power to glide any direction he liked.”

Palmer’s father was a great sand diver, but walked out on the family twelve years before, leaving his mother with four children and no options to support them but prostitution. The kids – Victoria (“Vic”), Palmer, Connor, and Rob, endure harsh treatment from others who know of their mother Rose’s occupation. But the cruelty of those around them is just one other aspect of the harsh nature of reality. As Vic described it:

Everywhere she looked, she saw life squeezing people, forcing them from one tight spot to the next, the cruel palms of misfortune wrapped around hapless necks.”

As the story begins, Palmer has taken a job offered by some dangerous brigands of the Northern Wastes, to dive deeper than he has ever gone. They are in search of the legendary city of “Danvar” (Denver). But the brigands don’t want to find Danvar for the obvious reasons of its fabled wealth of artifacts, but something more sinister. Palmer is in great danger. The dive unleashes forces that could destroy even the already fragile balance of the sands of this post-apocalyptic civilization.

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Discussion: I love this author. Besides his prowess at innovative and realistic world-building, he is so talented at character development. He creates outstanding but not perfect characters who are brave, resourceful, and willing to pick themselves up again and again in the face of life-threatening struggles and adversity.

What Howey also manages to do in his books is take an awful, dire post-apocalyptic scenario and balance it with both (a) the very bad people who caused it and/or are exacerbating it and (b) people who are the best humanity has to offer – courageous, altruistic, and determined to survive. What stands out about this horrible/wondrous incongruous mix is that there are no caricatures in this complex, nuanced world. Yes, the bad guys are evil, but they think they are doing the right thing, or they are doing what they think they need to do to survive – it’s never a black and white situation. And the good guys are so memorable and so admirable, you come to absolutely adore them (enough so to make you split an infinitive to express it!).

There is also lots of tension-filled, gripping action, so that you really don’t want to set his books down, either because you can’t wait to find out what happens, or because you just like these people so much and want to spend all the time you can with them.

Evaluation: For fans of science fiction and/or post-apocalyptic dystopias, this author is not to be missed.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014

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8 Responses

  1. There you go with dystopia again. I wish I could get into it.

  2. I’m glad that you recommend this one because I never would have picked it up from that cover!

  3. Is this part of the Wool trilogy?

  4. Sounds fascinating — what a neat premise. Does the author do much of that wink-wink nudge-nudge jokey stuff where the future people get everything about our present comically wrong?

    (Jill, seriously, I feel like every comment I leave on your blog is “Does X annoying thing happen? I am ready to be annoyed!” Please don’t think I am searching for faults. It is just curiosity.)

    • Jenny, Well you should ask such questions because so many books include such aspects. But one reason I am so impressed with this author is that there is really nothing wink-wink about his writing. He treats his characters and their lives with great respect and compassion, and imbues their story with a lot of intelligence. He carefully thinks out the scenarios he creates so that they don’t seem absurd in the least, nor a function of technological whiz-bangery. He lays bare the pain as well as the compensations of their existences that are easily relatable even though the story is set far in the future. He allows his characters to demonstrate a great deal of nuanced thought, and makes them very sympathetic. I am very happy to have discovered his writing!

  5. I thought this was part of Wool!!! This is not necessarily my genre, but I’m willing to try. Need to get his books on my short list. (Wool actually is on the short list…maybe two or three away from being up.)

  6. This sounds like a rare self-published winner.

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