Review: Seeking Shelter by Marie Howalt

“Wham, bam, everybody up in arms all over again.” – Luca

There is a hallmark of Howalt’s stories related to the concept of deep dive documentaries. With a quick search, you can find hours-long video essays that explore the arguments of unheard-of fandoms. You could become an expert at smelting iron ore for long-dead online games. Going into such a discussion, you are often being gradually introduced to an alien world. However, by the end? You’ve embraced that new world and see everything through its lens. You are rewarded with a deep understanding of hidden minutiae, yes, but that minutiae allows us to see broader scopes of how humans interact with others and the world at large.

So, that sort of deep dive exploration is key in this writeup. A writeup that is a review about the Moonless Series by Marie Howalt. Specifically, this covers Seeking Shelter, the second novel in that series. As a sequel, readers could be expected to know this world they’re diving into, but here it is entirely possible to plunge in context-free. However, there’s something to be said about getting everyone on the same page. Moonless, apropos of its name, is about the planet Earth after it lost the Moon. So, if you’re a fan of The Umbrella Academy, it’s kinda what would’ve happened if they hadn’t reversed blowing up the moon. Centuries later. In the future.

The scene is set just so: a handful of individuals are doing their best to survive on a crippled planet in a far-off future after cataclysmic events collapsed civilization and resources to the brink of extinction. You know, present day, but up ahead. Far up ahead. Beyond Thunderdome ahead.

So far ahead that this is a world that is unrecognizable to the reader and its inhabitants both. That is, if anyone had survived the apocalypse(s) that led to this future-present day. You have to remember something for its future to be unrecognizable. Otherwise, the past is unrecognizable and the stuff of myth and legend. Though, fortunately(?), someone did survive. Several someones, even. Obviously, they’re the ones that find things unrecognizable in Howalt’s Moonless future.

Anyway, same page. That’s what we’re heading toward, right? So. In an attempt to be both comprehensive and spoiler free, this sums up the first book: Some folks are living “normal” lives in the wasteland of future Italy, but things get turbulent when sentient robotic-humanoids, a wandering grump, the daughter of “civilization’s” leader, and a frozen-popsicle of a man dethaws. Through fate and faults, they wind up together long enough to go “WTF?” The ruling party of non-frozen humans don’t like change, so they’ve been oppressing progress and causing a lot of chafing for people that actually want to make things better. These four groups of chaos band together, cause the old-folks a rebellious fit, and then the rebellious ones leave to start their own colony in the ruins of a forgotten city.

Fun, right? Lots of fun. Fun is when everything goes wrong, right?

Now, Seeking Shelter takes place after all that. We’ve got a newly established colony of rebels, a tenuous relationship between them and surrounding settlements, and the also-tenuous relationship between the rebels and themselves. Everyone’s mostly settling in with new roles and placement in the world, but everyone carries some of the past with them. Like, jeez what a burden carrying it around. In fact, the past plays a central role throughout the story in casting doubt on the future or haunting us from embracing change. Just like real life!

“In this hostile, unsheltered world, more people could deplete the resources as easily as too many people inside the domes of Florence … could prove a challenge to the balanced eco systems within the domes.” – Teo

Speaking of the past, a lasting gut-punch of Seeking Shelter is caused by a reminder of our present. Climate change is a real deal that’s getting more damning with each passing day, and this is a story that speaks to those dangers and how careful we have to be. In both of the currently-released Moonless books, we see the results of a near-destroyed climate as an edge case of too-far-gone. And as seen in We Lost the Sky, we also get a great look at the struggle of caring required to combat climate change. Teo is a great character that seeks to share and cooperate toward a future of shared resourcing. She’d be worth voting for, no doubt. We could all learn from her message of crafted communication that helps us all toward a stronger whole.

It was too soon to die.” – Esmia

And, real quick, while we’re still talking about the past—really meaning the present—let’s talk about masks and sickness. You know, for survival. And belief, both how it affects and interferes with survival. There’s not a direct one-to-one comparison between religion and superstition, but there are connections there. Of course, the word “superstition” has a baked-in negative connotation, but that’s kind of the point in bringing it into the conversation.

See, Seeking Shelter spends a good deal of time ramping itself up to a unifying thread. That’s where Howalt’s hallmark deep-dive feel comes into play. Surround the reader in the world, and then, background set, unleash the details and the ideas that would be chaff without the context. The stage isn’t just set, it’s been constructed into a grand unifying experience.

In this story, that experience congeals to—sometimes painfully so—highlight the current struggles of our Earth. After all, moon or not, we are still just people. As mentioned, one of those struggles has to do with climate change. How do we live in this crazy turbulent world when everything keeps breaking apart? Another of those struggles is infections and outbreaks and superstitions around sickness. There is a really great ideal within Seeking Shelter about building acceptance while banishing the parts of us that breed hate and fear. A lovely wish is an idea that spirituality can be a strength that binds us together, but only if we can reject those beliefs that harm the people around us.

Because what is a human but piles of belief wrapped in biomatter? Or, artificial bodies too, in the case of Seeking Shelter. And that’s displayed time and time again with the way Howalt shows characters struggling with those critical pieces of self. As people do. By pitting those values against a rock and hard place, each character is fleshed out so that they breathe the same strengths and weaknesses as any of us. It’s a quality within everything written by Howalt, and it only gets better with each new publication.

But in Seeking Shelter, there is a full array of humanity on display. People we want to be. People we are ashamed of being. We see the failures and successes of hope, fear, ambivalence, and trust.

Really, it’s striking, admirable, and disheartening to see the ways we act as a collective. It’s on the news every day right now, and Seeking Shelter wraps up our current situation in a way comparable to the 1978 Dawn of the Dead / Zombie or the original Robocop. It’s a mirror that condenses humanity like some solar concentrator into a painting of us as Dorian Gray. There are misty-eyed moments in this book that are for the characters and their struggles, and there are others that are painful because damn humanity—that’s why. Damn them all.

But it’s not all gloom either. There is hope in abundance here. There are moments that caused little chortles and snickering laughs. Luca—just like always—has a presence similar to someone sneaking to the refrigerator at two in the morning to sneak a fistful of cake. The steadfast determination in Renn, in Mender, are a reminder that we have wells of strength from those around us. The heart of Teo, a person too invested that feels too much, shows the value in doing our best and forging ahead. The wary dream in Esmia is a push to continue navigating loss and the possibility of a true home.

And really, it’s because of the gloom that those variations of dreaming shine so brightly. The gloom of crisis in this story, and the gloom around us in the present. Yes. Things are bad, but if we bind ourselves together? We can make a better future.

Seeking Shelter is so damned nice because of that message. Because its characters, even bitter old (young) Luca, and grumpy-faced Renn, face down their fears and reluctance to keep working together. This story centers its progression around hope and trust. With that kind of core, you have to know the world, know the stakes, and understand the resources effecting the characters. Howalt crafts those elements expertly, draws them together so that they will affect one another, and then injects a crisis to show how the puzzle pieces react. The result is an aching message that shows that trust and hope are some of the greatest risks to take, but they’re the risks that reward us the most.

Marie Howalt’s Seeking Shelter is available at Amazon or through SpaceBoy Books.

Flash Fiction: Distant City

a footprint in white sand

Which burned worse: Sun or sand. A thousand pinpricks, sunburn and scrapes, or unending thirst. We had no room in our pain to decide. So, we continued over the desolate waste.

Something would appear. A town. A village. A lone hut. We had to believe.

By day, we huddled together in the cloth-shaded sled. Sleep was less a thing of rest than escape, and dreams were broken between moments of being fitfully half-awake.

By night, we traded at leaving footprints in the sand. The heat lingered, but it was cool by contrast. Sweat still slithered down my skin.

“Water,” gasped Lilou. She tugged the rope wrapped around my chest. “You, water.”

Stopping was more torturous than the heat, but she was right. I had ignored my turn for water, and she had been too delirious to remind me. It was easier to walk, to lean forward and ignore pain. Movement, every breath, was driven by my will. Stopping threatened to break me.

“Nuette, sit.”

I didn’t sit. I collapsed into the covered sled. “Lilou, we have to move.”

“We will. I will.” She handed me our canteen. It was nearly empty, but she struggled as if it were filled with rock. “You rest. My turn.” Lilou took the timer from my belt, flipped it over, and hung it from hers. Its black sands renewed their constant journey. A mirror of ours. Unending and seemingly without a true destination.

“But-“

“You. Need. Rest.”

Every word took effort. Her wheezing breath carried the dry pain. The skin on her knuckles was cracked as if she’d grown impossibly old. Like mine, her clothes were baked with sand and painfully stiff. Unlike me, she was smaller overall and had always been little more than skin and bone. Nevertheless, she crawled onto the searing sand.

I tried the canteen. My arms wouldn’t work. Circulation tingled where the rope had pressed. Weariness dragged at me, but I managed a sip. All that we could spare. Hardly more than a drop.

It took twice as long to screw the cap tight. To ensure that it was tight. To protect that last gulp.

Sleep drugged me with its release. I dreamt of home. The home I struggled to remember. Across oceans of distance and time.

Later, a timeless moment later, we were stopped. The change made me wake. I peered into the moonless night with groggy worry. “Lilou?”

Outside, her body was a shadowy lump on the ground.

I braced myself. As agreed, my first step was to take another sip of water. It felt like every drop melted into my cracked lips. I took a breath.

I crawled back onto the burning grit. “Foolish,” I murmured in breathless words. Speaking hurt my jaw. My throat.

Pulling her back to the sled was draining. I shook her. “Water.”

Three nudges, two slaps, and she woke. “Sorry.” Her face was covered in sand where she’d fallen. Gently as possible, I brushed the grains from her skin. I tipped the canteen to her mouth. Held my thumb between her lips to make sure water made the important journey.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, nearly unintelligible.

“Gonna pull now,” I whispered. I took the timer and found the end of the rope. Wrapped it around my waist. Looked ahead. Something glowed in the distance.

A city dimmed by the days between us and its gates. But it was progress. We were heading toward something.

For the first moment in weeks, my thoughts reached beyond survival. We might still find her. Wixie still had friends so long as we survived. With friends, she had hope too.

A want for speed tingled in my mind, but I kept a steady pace. Lilou slept, and when the timer ran out, I let her sleep. I did not collapse into the sled until dawn.

That next night, we could see a skyline. I memorized the jagged edges of shadows against a star-pricked canvas of blue-black. For the first time in weeks, the slimshine rose in the west. Glowing purples and shimmering greens painted our desert in treacherous beauty.

I watched from the sled with half-lidded drowsiness. Sleep was harder to find because of a rising expectation. Those ethereal lights were a sign of good luck. I chose to believe that meaning.

Our sled jerked to a stop. Lilou was motionless, arms limp. She was stuck, leaning forward, passed out but held like a puppet.

I opened the canteen and jiggled its contents. Enough to make noise, but not enough to feel the weight.

The city was still too far.

Purple-tinted shadows misted and melted under Lilou’s feet. Sand shifted under one of her feet. Her body tilted. She toppled to one side. Again, a lump on the dunes.

My glimmers of hope vanished in a breath.

Every limb seemed drawn to the earth like anchors. I had to roll from the sled, and even then, I stayed on my back for long enough to forget the passing time. The sky loomed over me and the swirling color drew me into a trance.

In that state, I forgot my reservations. I forgot my terror at the powers I’d lost. The ability I had forsaken. Spirit reached toward me and I remembered its grace.

Lilou’s presence touched me first. She was a faint outline of power that trembled on the edge of vision. She was a fading heartbeat of soul.

But the desert was afire with power. There were lifelines pulsing just below the surface. I shifted onto the mental plane and sank into the ground.

The pressing dark was pushed back by creatures too small to see. A million tunnels and miniscule chambers teemed with wriggling things. They were insects, vermin and barbed-predators, and there were larger animals with naked skin and blind eyes.

Spirit was in all things, and so the beasts added to the desert’s hidden light, but that did not account for the greater sense of power from further below.

Curiosity pulled me further into the depths of sand. I sank until the sand became stone. I sank until the stone grew warm.

A great cavern opened around me, and I floated above a ruined city. Toppled towers were strewn across the rubble of crumbling homes. A market square was sunken into a pool of water where a central well once stood.

Water.

I shot toward the pool without thinking. My thirst ravaged me with an intensity that I had forgotten. My spirit’s form ignored the water’s touch and I attempted to drink without feeling cool refreshment.

And then I remembered my physical body, far above on the desert surface, and suddenly I was staring at the stars.

I was reaching up, toward the undulating slimshine, and my wrist glowed from the tattooed band of the Severed. Sisters of the Cylnai were connected to me, but I had not reached out to them since leaving the sea.

‘Nuette?’ whispered some half-forgotten voice. It had hardly been a year, but the faces of that great ship were already nearly-faded.

‘Sotin?’ I had to strain to hear my old teacher, but I was sure it was her. The Embrahm sounded distant, and I did not know if that was a product of weakness or separation from the oceans. ‘I hope you are well.’

‘Nuette, what is wrong? Why does your soul feel so broken?’

It was foolish, but her words filled me with a fear beyond a death in the desert. Memories of a terrifying island and the loss of my parents strangled me with sudden grief. I snatched my mind away from the connection. I closed myself to the voices of Severed Sisters.

The twin golden bands ceased glowing around my wrist, and they were simple black tattoos once more.

But the connection had been a reminder of more than the failures in my past. I had remembered what I could do with enough spirit in my veins. True, those powers were once driven by the shard of a god, but perhaps I could reach beyond who I had been.

Still lying on my back, still staring up at the sky, I reached back into the ground’s wealth of old power. Some civilization had left its ghosts far below, and I knew enough of the dead to realize that they could be worthy allies.

The hollow of my right eye gave a twinge of pain. I hadn’t felt anything beneath my eyepatch for months, and the sudden renewed feeling did nothing to assure me that I was choosing a path toward safety.

I ignored the pain and dove into the sands. My spirit form sped through earth until I was back in the ruined city. Steeling myself against voices of the city’s forgotten, I pulled at the lingering spirit.

They flooded me with their eager return to the living.

Dozens of minds pressed against mine and I fought to keep my own voice. Theirs were mad and disjointed. They had no knowledge of their age or mine. I experienced the last flashes of their deaths. I saw great crowds of a purple-skinned people, and they fought with four arms, two legs, and a powerful tail. The Xanali, that long-extinct race, convulsed in their empire’s death.

Traps of lava were released into chambers of councilors. A king, crown askew, tore at his own tongue. A family, barricaded into their chambers, slashed their own throats until the mother stood weeping and alone.

I could feel my body convulsing like the buzz of a tiny insect. The annoying sensation of my physical form was nothing compared to the madness of those old souls. I did not think I would have the endurance to outlast their torment, but their spirit also filled me with power.

Their combined spirit was nothing compared to the wealth of a god, but the return was still a too-sweet promise. I’d hardly hoped for such a return, for such freedom as power could forge. I had thought myself severed from connections beyond myself, but the dead were bringing my spiritual plane back to life.

My focus steadied with the touch of those broken ghosts.

And as my focus steadied, I remembered my purpose. I remembered that pool of water and its promise of refreshment.

Reaching into my new well of spirit energy, I pulled at the hidden lake and drew strands of life back toward the surface.

It was slow going, and my mind ached with the effort, but I could feel the closing distance. My gambit was working.

A trickling well was bubbling toward a lifeless desert.

I did not have the control, by the end of it, to direct a steady flow of water. Had I been less dehydrated, less hungry, I might’ve made an oasis of that unknown spot in the dust. As it was, the most I could do was fill our canteen.

The water was warm, and it smelled like sulfur, but it quenched my thirst.

I pulled myself to Lilou’s side and propped her head in my lap. “Lilou, wake up.” My voice was rough, my throat was still sore, but I felt alive with the great gulps of water I had taken. It had taken all my will to keep from downing the canteen into sickness.

Lilou stirred, moaning with her aches, but she did not wake. I rested, doing little more than brushing away sand from her fall, until I could finally pull us back to the sled’s meager shelter. One drop at a time, I helped her drink away her stupor.

We dozed through the day, but Lilou continued a feverish sleep through the night. She had not been given the same breath of power as granted to me.

Reaching back through the earth, I drew what I could from the remaining souls. Some fled from my presence on that attempt, and I felt a growing unease at my abuse of their spirits. Death was supposed to send the living toward new chances, but a terrible end could bind souls to their place of death. I was freeing them from their chains, but I did not know enough to understand what became of them next. Was I lessening their torment, or increasing their pain?

Yet I justified my actions because I was alive and they were dead. I had to save my friend, and to do so I had to save myself. I took their lingering power and struck at the creatures beneath the desert surface.

I drew insects and rodents from the ground and killed them by the dozens. I broke parts from our wooden sled and tore strips of cloth from my clothes. Fire rushed through the dry shards, but it was enough to build a bed of meager coals.

Scraps of bugflesh made a glorious feast. I fed carefully-cut strips of desert shrew to Lilou as she shivered in the evening heat. We stayed there, in sight of that unknown city, until Lilou’s fever broke. Then, when she could open her eyes, when she wondered how we were still alive, we continued over the desolate waste.

Scraps of bugflesh made a glorious feast. I fed carefully-cut strips of desert shrew to Lilou as she shivered in the evening heat. We stayed there, in sight of that unknown city, until Lilou’s fever broke. Then, when she could open her eyes, when she wondered how we were still alive, we continued over the desolate waste.

And finally, after weeks of broken skin and parched throats, we stepped into the shadow of towering buildings.

Kuerati. Against all odds, we’d reached a destination that might be worth wandering across sun-baked sand. It was known as the City of Infinite Chances.

I helped Lilou from the sled. She was too light. Still too weak. But we stood together at the gates, and together we walked toward the hope of salvation.

Review: We Lost the Sky by M. Howalt

We Lost the Sky Title Image

“I think fixing the mess I made is the best remedy,” Luca mumbled.
“I’m afraid there will be none of that,” she retorted.

Luca and Nanny. We Lost the Sky, by Marie Howalt

Luca is a teenager from the futuristic past, before the sky fell, but being a young man out of time does nothing to dampen his spirits. Teo is a young woman that anticipates a future with good friends and technological advances, but first she must face her father and the city he controls. Renn wanders a wasteland that used to be the Italian countryside, and all he wants is to rejoin his traveling group. Mender, an artificial intelligence in an artificial body, wakes in a future that fears sentients like nem or doesn’t believe they exist.

Written by Marie Howalt, We Lost the Sky is a 2019 novel about the post-apocalyptic Earth left over after a meteor strikes the moon. The book is set around what used to be Florence, Italy, and follows the lives of these four protagonists as they fall into a mess of will and circumstance.

Clocking in at 295 pages, this is a full-length novel with plenty of time to explore its characters and setting. The pace is steady, never too fast or slow, and ‘natural’ is the word I think of when thinking about plot progression. Everything happens because it must, because everything chains together into an eventual outcome, and that makes the culminating events satisfying. I know where these characters came from, why they made their decisions, what they could’ve done instead, and how everyone came together for the climax.

“I say it’d be better for all of us if the flood made them leave,” commented the wife of one of the councilmen.
“Or drown,” added her husband. “Just kidding! Just kidding!”

Participants of the Dinner Party

Being a future-based post-apocalyptic society, We Lost the Sky presents people inhabiting a world that is largely unrecognizable. The story picks up decades after the cataclysm, and before that the world already had sentient artificial people and fanciful healing agents. The combination of future tech with a desolate landscape makes Earth seem more an alien world than our home. Though of course, the people are more than recognizable despite the strange surroundings.

Because Howalt does an excellent job at considering the line of consequences for a fallen moon. There are people that worship the moon’s fallen form, or think of her as a lost goddess, and there are signs of the (literal) impacts made by her disappearance. It’s also far enough past the disaster that people have forgotten the history of their downfall and who they even were. There are also clear divisions of those that were prepared versus those that survived. There are hidden caches of cryochambers, dome-covered cities stagnating under protective cover, and nomads purposefully avoiding attachments as they wander a broken world.

This is the setting of Howalt’s We Lost the Sky, and these are the locations that contain our four protagonists. Luca is the descendent of a wealthy family that had a safety chamber of cryo-storage, but he is the only one that survived. Teo is daughter to the man leading a stagnating domed Florence. Renn is the vagrant, and he meets up with the recently-wakened Mender seeking nir programmers for purpose in a lost world.

“Do you think it is always like that? That some people will go hungry while others have plenty?” Renn asked.
“I think it is a danger of any society, yes,” ne said.

Renn and Mender

All four begin the novel separate, alone in their own ways, and at a turning point in their lives. Luca is growing restless and fed up with the downfall of the cities he used to know. Teo is stretching the limits of her freedom. Renn loses track of his covey, the group he travels with for support and belonging. Mender is awakened after the loss of power for centuries.

And then, as events pull them along, the four meet and the knowing of one-another changes lives completely. When Renn meets Mender, he is shown a past that he never even considered. Luca meets these two and remembers loneliness and the promise of companionship. And Teo, though surrounded by the people of Florence, finds an understanding of greater possibility and responsibility with her introduction to the world beyond the city domes.

More than anything, this is a story that is about people finding people and making connections. About how we make judgments and resist change. The setting, with its wastelands and people afraid of the past and future, allow Howalt to highlight the absurdities of human nature. And the grace in our capability for kindness. The setting is used as a tool, though it’s also deep enough that the details feel like genuine byproducts of the broken planet. And it’s never used in a way that drags your face in some dismal reality or heavy-handed forewarning.

And I enjoy a story that has fun while taking itself seriously. We Lost the Sky does that in spades. The characters are living in their world and enjoying what they can, but they also respond properly to the threats and challenges they face. This is no cartoon world without consequences, but it isn’t joyless grimdark with overly-gruesome death and destruction. Luca cracks anachronistic jokes from his past while facing danger, and Teo flirts while toying with political intrigue.

Those interactions, both lighthearted and serious, do a pleasant job at revealing the characters and their ideas and ideals. It provides a discovery of the four lives separately, and all four are well established by the time they discover each other. Then, after the world jumbles them together, the group heads toward a new future with a hopeful message of peace and resolve. I knew them well enough to understand what they’ve lost, gained, and how they might change beyond the last page.

“Move it!” one of the guards behind them yelled. “Break it up!”
“What are you afraid of?” she shouted back.

Teo

I enjoyed We Lost the Sky for so many reasons that I can’t help but recommend giving it a read. On the forefront, Howalt’s book speaks on change, survival, and fear of the unknown. Behind that, this is a story about identity, family, standing up for your ideals, and accepting the wisdom of others. Then, there are sprinkled-in elements on the acceptance of gender, the strength of pacifism, and the values of traditionalism versus progressive ideas. All of these bits combine together into a fun book with fantastic aspects and well-written depth.

Full cover of We Lost the Sky

Get it at one of these locations, or read additional reviews:
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43866656-we-lost-the-sky
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07NKFL483/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
https://www.adenng.com/2019/01/31/book-review-we-lost-the-sky/
https://readspaceboy.com/