Book Review: Wool, by Hugh Howey
I’ll begin this review by saying simply that Hugh Howey’s Wool is a wonderful story, and I had to think very hard about whether or not I should give it the Hot Princess or the full Epic Dragon rating. In the end, I went with Hot Princess, but it really was close, and I damn near changed it to Epic Dragon again this morning after I woke up thinking about the story still, but I’m sticking to my guns; Epic Dragons are just freaking rare.
Wool is clever, engaging, and very smart. You won’t guess the ending even though you will think you have guessed the ending several times as the story moves along. I mean, by all means try to noodle it out as you go, but, yeah, you won’t. I love when that happens! I found myself very tense while I read it, in a good way, like as in, actual heart-rate increase as I read along—it’s a good thing I didn’t have a heart attack and die while reading it, or I would have had to sue him and take all the money he’s going to make on this book and related series. Bottom line, it’s a very enjoyable read, and I completely recommend it, especially if you like short stories or novelettes.
Wool is the first story in a series of five books (which increase significantly in length with each successive book as I understand). I will point out immediately that Wool stands perfectly on its own, and there is no cliff-hanger or other device meant to force you to buy more. You will want to, of course, or at least I feel you will, but it will be out of curiosity, not because you were left unfulfilled.
The story is a dystopian one, set in a delightfully Orwellian place. It revolves around the main character, Holston, who we meet in the brilliantly written first line, which reads, “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.” This is where I began to suspect that I had lucked into really good piece of work—the first line. It’s good on first read, and in hindsight, that line is brilliant on the order of other famous first lines like “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” and perhaps even “Call me Ishmael,” although I admit, I may gush too much—I just really liked the story. So, gush or no, that is, as opening lines go, in that category, and the story pays into it in many ways that are far more fun to think about than I can allow myself to hit in this review without spoiling things (and it’s what I woke up thinking about, going, “Oh my god, so that means … and such and such happened because … and … OMG!” That is rare and wonderful).
What follows is a rich story of human lives, people living in a world, a culture, with a set of beliefs and traditions that seem both to bind them and drive them apart. It’s an intelligent story and, again for the sake of no spoilers, suffice to say that Holden is going to make a choice and, over the course of that story, have to live with that decision as it plays out in many ways. It’s fundamental storytelling technique, and Howey nailed it.
Now, as we all know, no book is perfect, and Wool has imperfections just like all the rest. For me, what stood out as less than perfect is that it is short. Too short. As a consequence, I think there are a few places where the author relies too heavily on dialogue to fill in back story (and this is why the Epic Dragon got knocked down to Hot Princess, even though on Amazon I’m giving it a 5-star review—I think there’s a different standard there, and much more at stake for the author, and if I’m going to err on the side of unyielding critical scrutiny here, I will certainly err on the side of the author there).
While dialogue is a perfectly acceptable device for exposition, it ought not to go beyond a remark here, or perhaps a few sentences of explanation there. But given how short this piece is already, the amount of dialogue that serves this function seems disproportionate. In one or two places it becomes “telling” rather than “showing” in the guise of verbal exchange. Even then, Howey carries it off well, and it’s not dry or painful like it usually is if writers get in a hurry and jam a bunch of plot explanations into their characters’ mouths. However, given how wonderfully Howey can create scenes and settings, I found myself wishing in those places where the conversation was doing a little too much work that he’d slowed down more for some of this history. He might have used flashbacks more, which he does in places as it is. Or perhaps found some video content that his characters could have watched, or an old journal… who knows. My point is not to second-guess this wonderful story, but rather to lament that there was not more of it in places that I felt went too fast.
Those instances are few, and they are comparatively brief, and even with them, I was absolutely riveted to the story the entire way. The characters feel human and you care about them. The setting is palpable, and the descriptions, in places at least, are sublime. The world is fabulous, real, believable, uncomfortable, sad, plausible and fun. It’s rendered with careful prose, nicely edited (especially for an indie book), and it truly kept me breathless nearly the entire time. A brilliant idea is at the heart of it, and the execution of that idea is spectacular. And the ending rocks. I hope Mr. Howey sells a billion copies and makes more money than God.