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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.

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/

Review: Jennifer Flath – The Black Pearl

Black Pearl Cover
Cover for the Black Pearl

“Will it be dangerous?”
“It is not for the faint of heart, and there are no refunds.”

Rin and Alexander (Jennifer Flath – The Black Pearl)

The right book can take you to a faraway place, where the people are familiar in a hundred different ways. The characters become friends, and even after a journey they’ll keep constant company.

The Black Pearl series, by Jennifer Flath, is one of those stories that I began to breathe and look forward to visiting. I still do. It’s like finding an overgrown stone cottage out in a wild spot of forest. It’s one of those places that feels ancient and mystical and timeless. It feels real and unreal at the same time. It’s lovely.

This review covers two completed books in the series: The Black Pearl and The Memory Spell. A third book, The Destiny Detour is currently being published as a chapter-by-chapter web serial. But these tales are focused on a young woman with mysterious presence named Rin. The epic follows her struggles to save existence from dangerous forces. Along the way, she meets friends and enemies that are crucial to her development as a person and key to her success in restoring order to the world.

Alexander could not decide how this news made him feel. If anyone was brazen enough to attack a camp full of Malum, it would be his sister. Should he be hopeful or terrified?

Characters

Flath focuses almost entirely on her characters, and the result is wonderful. I care about every person, good or evil, ambivalent or invisible, in this series. I want to know all of their stories, past present, and future. They’re all distinct and interesting and have little conflicting bits of personality that become engaging and intriguing. How will this group of people react to this situation, or the next one? I began to read as a way to hang out with these people just as much as I did to follow the plot. And there was never conflict just for the sake of inciting drama. Everyone seems very rational in their irrational outbursts or stupid decisions.

A useful writing exercise for characters is to describe them without referring to how they look. Describe them with motivations and personality and non-physical character traits. Rin is kind and curious and forgiving; she is a nurturing soul with a strength of will to resist anyone’s hope to break the Good within. Alexander is a restless scholar that wants to know everything and share that knowledge with someone he cares about; he is the embodiment of progress and growing beyond past mistakes after coming to new understandings. And Shrilynda is a woman grown distant from humanity through her quest for power and the ability to control her every situation; she is self-serving indifference and the callous disregard of ends-justifies-the-means.

The actions of these characters define them. They are strong representations of character and ideals. It takes some time to get to know some of their motivations, but it is wholly worthwhile. And Flath introduces each of the main players over careful spaces of time and action. Many begin as the embodiment of one specific archetype or set of traits, but they are gradually given depth and flaws.

But this is no Game of Thrones or Dark Knight. There are no major figures of gray ambiguity. For the most part, this story paints groups and people in swathes of light and dark, one side or the other. And that is refreshing. To me, it is more than welcome. Plus, this only adds to the fantastical mythological feeling of the story. I like the stark good and evil presented in these books. Hints at philosophical gray areas are there at the edge of the narrative, and that’s enough.

Rin smiled slightly. “Does your sword often send books or fire flying at you?”
“Not even once.” Alexander shook his head.

Setting

The Black Pearl series takes place on a different planet somewhere. Perhaps it is an alternate universe. Maybe it’s some kind of experimental hologram. It could be a different galaxy. There’s never any concrete explanation, but there are hints. That doesn’t really matter though. What matters is that the stories just scratch the surface of a living world that stands on its own with created elements while borrowing the best parts of comfortable fantastical elements. There are unicorns and giant scorpions and overly-educated panthers. There’s a great crystal palace and orc-like tribes fighting over scraps of riverside real-estate. This is the world many stories have inhabited, but it’s not just some lifeless carbon copy pasted over from Tolkien or Lewis. It’s an incarnation that shows a vivid imagination willing to take ideas and blend them and grow them into something stronger.

And it’s done with careful brush strokes of meaningful detail. There are no long passages describing places or things in this series, and instead Flath chooses to lace world building into conversation and immediacy. This can leave the world feeling somewhat like a blank canvas, but with these stories it’s executed carefully and works well. I always knew where I was and never felt like the story was a series of talking heads, and I was never glancing to the end of the paragraph in want of action. Of course, I’d love to get more info on the world and its cultures, but it really wouldn’t fit with the narrative style or pacing of the story. I’d rather wait for a reader’s companion out there in the future and enjoy the story without infodumps.

Plot

The Black Pearl starts quickly, lingers around in the middle as everyone gets to know one another, and then it rushes forward to a conclusion. The Memory Spell starts out with slow deliberate steps, gradually picks up speed, and then it shudders a little before snapping into its ending. Both are stories of great evils and the fight against catastrophic calamity. Black Pearl’s situation is definitely more dire, but with Memory Spell I cared more and knew more, so there was a feeling of more danger.

As mentioned earlier, the characters are the focus of these books. Their experiences, thoughts, goals, and reactions to the events are what I enjoyed. Sometimes, the focus is entirely on these individuals and their relationships. That slows the pacing, but it deeply enhances the impact of what happens to everyone.

Perhaps because of that focus on characters, neither of these are direct A-to-B novels. They’re winding roads of related events, though the character are always pursuing their goals. Sometimes their goalposts are moved, sometimes the goal is misunderstood, or maybe they have a hard time remembering what they were doing. These are good things. It keeps the reader guessing and nothing feels over-scripted or forced. The progressions of accomplishment are fought for and natural. It feels like Flath writes to share an adventure that happened, and adventures should never be drawn with a straight line.

Now, of the two books, The Black Pearl definitely has more of a straight line. It’s arc, though well drafted and expertly executed, is the bread and butter of Fantasy novels. A powerless, downtrodden, and unknown individual finds something / someone that sparks a change in their life and leads them to power and glory. They had the power within them the whole time. These are fantastic story elements that are fun and a delight to experience when done well. Fortunately, Flath uses tropes as they should be used: They are tools with which she conveys thought and emotion. Once again, the depth of character development pulls everything together.

The Memory Spell has a lot more surprises, but does very nearly veer into a wandering aimlessness. This may be intentional, or it might just be a byproduct of the character focus. Character progress from the first book is lost, everyone is split apart, and the cohesive team of before is shattered. So, aimlessness feels right. In fact, events of the book almost demand a lack of certainty. There was a real feeling of hopelessness and dark times that made the resolution all the more satisfying.

She had conjured a flying sheepskin rug.
At least it seemed harmless and was not currently breathing fire.

Overall

This review likely makes it plain that I am a fan of these stories. My objectivity toward the books is understandably questionable. So, for what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly recommend Jennifer Flath’s series, and I will continue to read her work. She creates satisfying stories that are epic and heartwarming and fun. 4.5 stars.

Clarity and Readability – A star for rating stuff.
Originality and Interest – ratingStarHalf
Cohesiveness and Setting – A star for rating stuff.
Characters and Development – A star for rating stuff.
Enjoyability – A star for rating stuff.