Title: Withered + Sere
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: DSP Publications
Release Date: April 19, 2016
Page Count: 280
Reviewed by: Vallie
Heat Level: 0 flames out of 5
Rating: 5+ stars out of 5
Once upon a time, humanity could no longer contain the rage that swelled within, and the world ended in a wave of fire.
One hundred years later, in the wasteland formerly known as America, a broken man who goes only by the name of Cavalo survives. Purposefully cutting himself off from what remains of civilization, Cavalo resides in the crumbling ruins of the Northern Idaho Correctional Institution. A mutt called Bad Dog and a robot on the verge of insanity comprise his only companions. Cavalo himself is deteriorating, his memories rising like ghosts and haunting the prison cells.
It’s not until he makes the dangerous choice of crossing into the irradiated Deadlands that Cavalo comes into contact with a mute psychopath, one who belongs to the murderous group of people known as the Dead Rabbits. Taking the man prisoner, Cavalo is forced not only to face the horrors of his past, but the ramifications of the choices made for his stark present. And it is in the prisoner that he will find a possible future where redemption is but a glimmer that darkly shines.
The world has died.
This is the story of its remains.
Illustrated by Blake Dorner.
I am a huge fan of post-apocalyptic novels and when I first saw that my favourite TJ Klune has written one, I was completely over the moon and dying to read it. Not that I had any doubts, but oh my god was this THE ABSOLUTE BEST!
First, this is one of 4 books in the Immemorial Year universe. However, it was originally the first half of the first book, which turned out too long and TJ split it in half. And yes, it ends in a cliff-hanger of sorts, but only because it was not meant to finish like that at all. So those who abhor cliff-hanger endings fear not. The second book is ready to come out in a few months and the ending is not in the middle of something as such, more like the stage was set for what is to follow. And let me say, based on this first book? The story will be epic, I just know it. But I digress.
So what do we have here? The blurb is pretty self-explanatory. The world has ended. There has been violence, destruction, and complete anarchy, but for the few places that managed to fortify themselves and maintain some form of civilization. The main character, Cavalo, is a weathered, 40-year old man who has seen more pain than one should, even in an environment as hopeless as the one painted here. He is alone, but for his faithfully companion, Bad Dog, who Cavalo can hear and have conversations with. During a hunt that went wrong, Cavalo ends up taking a Dead Cannibal as prisoner. The Dead Cannibals are a lawless group that terrorises anyone encroaching on their territory deep in the forest, the Deadlands. They are aptly named for being cannibals, which is why they are feared and hated by all. So Cavalo stumbles upon this early 20 something kid who is mute and possibly even more psychotic than Cavalo. After a few run ins with leaders from a new government representing the United federated States of America in a nearby town, Cavalo flees with the dead Cannibal, who he calls ”psycho” in his head and returns to the prison he’s made a home in. Essentially, the group is comprised by Cavalo, his dog, and a robot (SIRS) that ran the prison ”Before”. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the identity of the young cannibal and a lot of suspense in the plot.
And that’s where I’ll stop. The magic of reading a book with a plot to exquisitely crafted is in discovering it for oneself.
But here’s what I know.
The book deals with the pain of loss in a magnificent way. Cavalo is lost after the tragedy he lived through and that is evident in everything he does. But perhaps more importantly, the story manages to portray the idea of mental illness caused by trauma in so many different forms –it’s unreal. I am not going to use the word “insane” as it’s used in book because insanity is a legal term, not a psychological one. But that’s not important. What’s important is how literally (through Cavalo and the Dead Rabbit) and allegorically (through SIRS) mental illness is portrayed, in varying degrees of intensity and impairment. That, that is absolutely fucking brilliant and I cannot commend the author enough for pulling it off. The characters are not caricatures of themselves. They are real; they are flawed; and they don’t act in a predictable way. Down to the fact that Cavalo and the Dead Rabbit tried and failed to kill each other so many times throughout this book, I lost count. But hidden under all of that hatred and fear is respect and admiration and tentative trust, slowly built day by day, only to be destroyed in a fit of paranoia and hallucinations.
The writing style is the biggest advocate for believing in this world. It’s precise. There’s no fluff here and no incoherent ramblings commonly seen in Klune’s more comedic pieces. There is gravity to the narration and it does not allow for light-hearted moments. And yet. Trust TJ Klune to create a world where suicide would seem like a huge relief and to make your heart break over a half-crazy man talking to his dog about when he found it as a puppy. Gut-wrenching, man, it broke me.
And of course, the big question. Is this a romance? Yes and No. In this particular instalment, the foundation that needed to be laid was way too big and I don’t think there was room to realistically develop a romance. But, Cavalo and the Dead Rabbit have promise. The way this story is set up, I freaking bet that when the romance comes, it will beyond anything I would expect. There is so much potential for super dramatic intense feelings here, and TJ is a master in those. So if you’re thinking of skipping this because of how almost non-existent the romance is, I urge you to reconsider. The bigger the build-up, the better the pay off.
This novel transcends the mm community. It can be read by all fans of post-apocalyptic novels. So, don’t hesitate. My copy was simple text, so the moment this gets out, I am buying it to get the full effect of the illustrations included.