Saturday, March 3, 2012

Breakdown: A Review

Katherine Amt Hanna's Breakdown is a very near future post-apocalypse novel set six years after the outbreak of a virulent plague has wiped out much of modern technology and set the world back to a quasi-19th century setting.

Katy Hanna lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons. When  she is not spending an inordinate time (7 years) writing her novels, she sews medieval and biblical costumes.  The Facebook page for her medieval efforts is here.  The pictures of her little one wearing Roman Empire attire reminds me of my little one:  I wonder if she tells him its inspired by the Star Wars movie series.  My sister made my little one an Obi Wan Kenobi cloak, and it becomes a shepherd's cloak once a year around Christmas time.  The commercial site for Ms. Hanna's clothing is here.

The list of her favorite authors (Lois McMaster Bujold, Orson Scott Card, John Wyndham, Connie Willis) indicates a science fiction based apocalyptic influence.  Breakdown is her first full-length novel.  The dating of the collapse is actually before the copyright date.  I am not sure if that is because of the lengthy gestation period, or intended as a way to mute some of the anticipatory problems that can occur within the genre:  in other words by putting the novel in the past, you are not saying that this will happen in our world, but what happened in a world like ours.  There is a short interview which unfortunately discusses more the process by which she published, rather than the novel itself.  A similar interview is here.

The cause of collapse is a virus with an additional mix of elements from the  medieval black death.  If you note that one of her favorite writers listed is Connie Willis, and one of Ms. Willis' better books is Dooms Day Book, which involves a time traveling historian who (somewhat accidentally) gets trapped in Medieval England during a breakout of the plague, that admixture is likely not accidental.

Much of the action takes place at the psychological level.  The book starts with the main hero, Chris,  who was in (way) Upstate New York at the time of the first major outbreak finally returning to his home town in England looking for any remnants of his family and friends.  There is some obvious tension between them, and then we flash back to his immediate doings before he arrived.  It is this one year precursor period that is our primary timeline, and we work our way through it until we catch back up to the beginning scenes of the novel.  Throughout the novel their are flashbacks to the extreme difficulties that Chris had in trying to make it home to England.  Flashbacks within a flashback sounds confusing, but it works reasonably well.

As I noted, the primary focus is on the psychology of a very traumatic experience and how people deal with the trauma.  Although, there are some regrets for not having he convenience of modern life anymore, the big regrets are the loss of loved ones and the return of much of the population to sustenance farming.  Chris, makes friends with a young lady, Paulina, and begins to work through a lot of issues.  It is in this process that we learn most of the details of his experience.  Truthfully, outside of the very poor survival rate of the friends he makes along the way, the experiences are not that out of the ordinary for the genre.  The world is an ugly place, but not as badly collapsed as the Road.  But the advantage of the approach used, is that the experience is set against a domestic lifestyle, so that they do not loose their darkness.  In the Road, McCartney has to keep upping the ante until they are eating babies to get shock value: here rats will do.

In all, I found it to be an enjoyable read.  The language and style were relatively straightforward.  The authoresses combination of modern left overs with high-medieval lifestyles is deft.  It combines the homeyness of a close knit farming community, with the fear and paranoia of periodic waves of the plague.  It is not action packed, but it is an interesting study on psychological stress-trauma, and on a possible pared back lifestyle.

For our descriptive (not qualitative) ratings (1 to 7 with 7 being high):  For grittiness/realism I would rate it a 7.  It is not gritty in the sense of cannibals roasting people on an open fire, but a grittiness of the psychological consequences of violence and surviving after you have "survived". 

For readability, I will say that it is a six.  The language is straightforward, and it comes about as close to being a page turner as a book that is mostly talking thinking can be.  There is one faux-alls-well-that-ends-well portion about 2/3 of the way through the  book (which you know won't last because there is too much book left), and the concluding final chapters are just a little slow moving.  The epilogue was a very nice touch.
Katherine Amt Hanna


Erisian ( said...

Sounds pretty good. I like the "psychological grittiness" you describe. Could be the pivotal bit separating it from other genre novels.

Was this small house or self pubbed? Seems like it is fringe like that

russell1200 said...

E: The publisher sounds like a self pub, but she has been interviewed enough on this one to imply some sort of competant marketing which implies otherwise.

For a more immediate high-psychology novel, I would probably put Red Queen close to the top. But it was done by an Aussie, so it can take some scronging to get into the states (I used Ebay). If you go to my Review Roundup 3 post you will see the link.

But this book in some ways seems more real.