Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sun Bleached Winter: A Review

D. Robert Grixti's Sun Bleached Winter (Amazon U.S., Amazon U.K.) is post-apocalyptic novel set two-years after the onset of nuclear winter from some sort of unexplained event.  It looks a lot like a post nuclear war scenario to me, but the cryptic nature of the authors blurb leaves it somewhat up in the air.  The geographic setting is left intentionally unclear, but the lack of firepower from even the bad guys, and a little guessing (the place name Haversham comes up) it might be in Northern England.

There is a planned sequence that will involve a different primary character called Crusaders of Ice.

D. Robert Grixti is an independent video game developer, magazine editor, and horror writer.  He is currently living in Melbourne Australia.

Authors stated purposes (interview here):
What initially led to me writing Sun Bleached Winter was a discussion with a friend about the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. We’d both been amazed by how emotional it was (most of the post-apocalyptic stuff we were familiar with being mainly fast paced action/adventure stuff, like Mad Max for example), and made me think of another spin on post-apocalyptic fiction that I’d never seen done before – horror.
I didn’t just want to write a scary, post-apocalyptic tale, I also wanted to explore the psychological condition of the characters and touch on what humanity means in a world where there are no laws
Which is a little ironic as Honey Brown, a fellow Australian, won an Australian prize (Aurealis) for best Horror Novel with her apocalypse-in-progress: The Red Queen. Poor Honey just can't get any respect!  There actually is a pretty long list of apocalyptic horror set within a realistic setting, it just doesn't always cross reference in searches.  Arguably, apocalyptic-horror, was what H.P. Lovecraft was all about.

The novel involves a grown brother and sister, Lionel and Claire, wandering around the devastated landscape.  It is obviously playing off of McCarthy's The Road except that presumably the sister is the stand in for the innocent youth.  They wander around and have episodic adventures, much like The Road.  Eventually they stumble upon someone who is a little more helpful, and they make their way toward a small enclave that is in some fashion trying to forge ahead.  Somewhere along the way, ghost-like visages show up to pester the brother.

It just doesn't hold together.  Almost from the very beginning you get odd events that don't make a lot of sense.

At the very opening, the part that is in the free sample, you have the hero risking himself to get hold of a notebook.  Yet latter on we have them traipsing around through a small downtown area and noting that there are office supplies for the taking. (?).

We get detailed combat scenes, but the author seems to have learned his combat knowledge from the video game genre: weapons are misnamed, revolver  ammunition is universally acceptable by all of that general type, people dodge bullets...that kind of thing.  There are the obligatory super-dogs,  that don't seem to have had the same problem finding non-poisoned water.  There is no discussion as to why Newtown can grow crops in the open under the darkened sky.

Apocalyptic novels are often a little short on logic.  That wouldn't be the end of the world, if the characters and activities can keep up the story line.  The author is trying to make Lionel into the brooding, thoughtful sort.  Unfortunately, he tilts past brooding into whiny in a serious way.  Granted, the poor guy has ghosts of some sort hectoring, him, but he cannot even be bothered to check out the fact that  the ranger's station they stumble on has power to supply a radio, and he ignores the message about Newton. Lionel is the most grating main character I can recall since the professor in The Fall of Eden.

Which brings up another odd point.  In looking around the web at a number of different reviews, the reviewer notes some items from the opening chapter, and then verbatim tells the plot line from the provided book blurb.  The problem is that the book's blurb, doesn't actually describe the plot line very well.  When Lionel hears the radio broadcast about Newtown, he ignores it.  When they head to Newtown latter, they aren't searching for it because they are with someone who has just come from there.  Having seen the occasional blog-reviewer get caught out for cribbing their reviews, I guess it shouldn't be surprising that one way to pad your review totals is to read the first chapter and then comment on the blurb.  I don't pretend to understand the logic, but it's out there.  None of this is the fault of our book author, but it is a sad indicator of our current mode of pump-and-dump blog spot marketing techniques.

I appreciate what Mr. Grixti is trying to do.  Creating a  "The Road" with an interesting twist seems like a good enough idea.  But the road is written by one of the most successful American author's of the late 20th century.  You can't simply pull apart some of his themes and then throw in a little blender produced other-genre ingredients and expect good results.   It doesn't work.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism is a tough call.  The novel has a very similar of a setting to The Road.  It actually avoids that novels problem of having too many successful cannibals around so late after a disaster by only being two years after the catastrophe.  It has the occasionally seen mantra that it is hopeless to stay in one place, that you must keep moving to survive.  The storyline, in its own odd way, I suppose does demonstrate that concept.  But there are ghosts, or spooky things.  And some pretty mediocre detailed combat scenes.  Tactics used to take a fortified house involve running up to the house and shooting at the people. (?).   There are no elves, and people are hungry.  It's a three.
Readability is a little more straightforward.  There is a lot of brooding, which keeps it from being a page turner.  The logical flaws, at least for those who notice them, lead to some confusion as to what exactly is going on.  The ghosts and the mysterious nature of the cause of the destruction leave some unanswered questions hanging out there.  But it still moves along.  There is action,  There is adventure. There is trying to save poor Sis'.  It is a four.


PioneerPreppy said...

Hmmm doesn't sound like a run out and buy one to me.

End of the world horror is so sub classified as you say that many that would count are counted somewhere else.

Dark Gaia said...

Hi Russel,

Thanks for taking the time to read my work. I regret that you didn't find much enjoyment in it, but I appreciated that you have taken the time to provide detailed feedback and analysis.

As a 20 year old who is still in uni, I consider it an honour that anyone has taken the time to read the novel and write such an in depth review about it, especially someone who is so well versed in the apocalyptic genre (whereas my own knowledge of the genre is -- as you can probably tell -- somewhat limited).

Sun Bleached Winter is supposed to be a horror novel first and foremost, with a very loose basis in reality (this is why, for example, the end of the world is left ambiguous). That said, as my first work, I'm aware that execution might be lacking, so I will gladly take your comments into account for my next effort.



Dark Gaia said...

Quickly before I forget, however, I must address one of your points :)

"weapons are misnamed, revolver ammunition is universally acceptable by all of that general type"

I'll pay you the weapon misnaming (revolvers and rifles are all colloqially called "32s" in Australia) though I don't think I ever mentioned Lionel's revolver being able to utilise ammunition from other weapons. All of the weapons mentioned in the novel are weapons commonly found on farms in Australia -- typically, handguns are all .32s.

P.S I personally like to think that the end of the world in my novel was an asteroid strike. Just thought you'd be interested to hear my take on it :)

Jake Elliot said...

Hi Russel,

That was a comprehensive review--and well said--no snark or barbs, just your impressions of the book. One of the things that amazes me about books is how several people can read the same book and get something so different out of it. I was more forgiving with the gun-type issue, I figured as a first person narrative that lionel didn't know what he was dealing with, being citizens in Australia don't have a right to own firearms. There were a couple parts that didn't satisfy me as much as I I'd have expected to seasoned authors like Cormack McCarthy or Stephen King or Robert McCammon. Each had several books under their wing before attempting a post-apocalypse tale, this was Mr. Grixti's first go in the ring.

I like how you write, it takes balls to write a less-than-good-review and not be a dick. Honest, exact, balanced--these are the elements that will make Mr. Grixti's next book better.

To add artistic contrast, my review is posted here--http://jakeelliotfiction.com/2013/01/21/d-robert-grixtis-sun-bleached-winter/

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: If some of the logic were straightened out, and the combat a little tighter...


It is because I am old. If I could remember half of what I had read, I would seem a lot smarter.

Probably the Lionel's introspection/self absorption clash more with the horror than the apocalyptic portions. McCarthy makes it look easy, but it is not.

On firearms: The New Town agent hands Lionel a bag of ammunitions as if all "revolver" ammunition were equal. There are some common pistol, revolver, rifle types in the U.S., but that is a long way from making them generic. The standard military revolver was a .38. Saying that all farms have 32s is like saying all US ganbangers use 9s. I never could tell exactly what sort of "machine gun" the agent was using. It sounded a little like either an assault rifle (full auto carbine) or sub-machine gun (full auto pistol caliber).

It is interesting that an asteroid strike is the cause. It makes some of the results a little off beat, but it reminds me a little of British author, David Roger's Dog Eat Dog where cosmic catastrophe meets Cthulhu (and zombies).


There is no doubt that different people will see the same book differently. A number people have commented on past books that they plan to buy a book that I personally didn't like all that much. I attempt to describe enough that people with different preferences will get enough information to see if they will like it. That is why, for myself, reviews that are all about "I like this" or "I didn't get into that" aren't terribly helpful.

I am at slight variance on the gun knowledge (or any plot dependent knowledge) issue. It is not important that characters understand what is going on, but it is important that what is happening is plausible. Gunfire was an important element of the text. If you read McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, you will see that he is very careful to understand the weapons and firearms he is describing, when they are an important story element. There are ways to get around an imperfect knowledge, but the story here was too detailed for that.

Thank you for sharing your review.

Dark Gaia said...

Russel: Ah, I see what you mean. If anything, it's the fact that I never actually specified which weapons they were that may cause the confusion. I don't particularly know much about firearms (in fact, having access to anything other than a hunting rifle in Australia is very rare) -- I barely even play video games focusing on firearms, so I felt the safest way to proceed would be to have Lionel identify the guns in generic terms such as "machine gun", firstly because he doesn't know what specific type of weapon it is, and it prevents me from identifying a weapon incorrectly.

Funnily enough, the guns were never really meant to be a main part of the storyline; there are only two gunfights in the novel. The "point" of the novel, I guess, is to chronicle Lionel's eventual descent into madness as he tries to cope with situations that he was never prepared for (physically and mentally. Nothing more -- it's basically a psychological sci-fi/horror story with apocalyptic dressings. That said, I understand that some may expect a realistic "prepper" story, and in that instance, the story will fall short. I apologise for the factual inconsistencies. I'm not a prepper by any means, and although I felt that the fantastic elements of the story (the ghosts, the science fiction elements) would distance the novel from reality somewhat, I understand now that this genre is not one to be taken lightly.

Again, thank you for your time and comments. I haven't even started the sequel yet (I plan to write a more straight forward supernatural horror novel first), so there is plenty of time to take it all onboard and incorporate it into the story plan.


P.S For the record, the cause of the apocalypse in the novel is officially undefined -- it's basically whatever you want it to be (because there are too many implausibilities for it to be any one particular event). I personally think of an asteroid strike, but I didn't have this in mind when I wrote it. I didn't have any particular event in mind -- the important thing is that SOMETHING happened, and now an ordinary man is out of his depth.

Apologies for the long comment, by the way -- I just feel that since you took time out of your day to write this review, I should do it justice and offer you a comparably comprehensive reply.