Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Envy Chronicles by Joss Ware - Series Review

Series Review and Post-Apocalyptic Thoughts
Thought #1: "Man, if the grid ever goes down, I'm gonna be food."
Thought #2: "I should get some books on edible native plants... one that includes medicinal properties -- I could be like Claire in Outlander."
Thought #3: "How would you rig a windmill to generate electricity?  I should learn how."
Thought #4: "... I'd better stop right there, or I'm going to end up in a cabin in Montana with a lot of freeze-dried food and guns...."

Generally speaking, I'm not big on science fiction and futuristic settings.  I tend to get bored by the space opera world building and the obsession with technology.  That's what I do for a living (not space travel, but pretty high tech stuff). When I read for fun, I want more character, more emotion in my stories.

But there's something different about the post-apocalyptic subgenre.  It's futuristic, but lower-tech.  In some, maybe most fictional visions, it's pretty much no-tech.  Something about that appeals to us, both to our fears and our desires, I think.  Those of us who are into blogging and reading blogs are a self-selected audience of people comfortable with technology, people who turn to the Internet for fun and entertainment, possibly in addition to using it as an everyday tool for work.  Who among us has not had a fleeting thought that maybe we should be out touching the actual world, and not the internet avatar of the world?  The Information Revolution, and before that, the Industrial Revolution, have done more in the last 200 years to change how people lived than the preceding millenia or two.  Don't you sometimes think that maybe people aren't meant to live this way?  Me too.  (Then I go back to playing "Combine" on Facebook, checking my email, or surfing blog reviews.)

OK, I told you that this stuff gets me going into Deep Thoughts. Which is one reason that I'm so fascinated by Joss Ware's Envy Chronicles.  There aren't too many post-apocalyptic romance series.  (MOAR PLZ).

Series Premise
Something catastrophic-- we're not sure what-- happens to the planet more or less overnight, which caused massive earthquakes, fires, floods, tsunamis, tornadoes.  Mass destruction.

Geographically, the series, at least so far, unfolds between Arizona and Las Vegas, which is the new west coast.  California has fallen off, it seems, sunk or crumbled into the Pacific.  The Arizona/Nevada desert has transformed into a tropic.  While some generated electricity is around, most people are living in small commune-style farming communities.  Envy, named  for the remnants of the LAS VEGAS, NV sign, is, as far as anyone in this story knows, the largest urban settlement around.

I haven't read a ton of stuff in this genre, but most of it focuses instantly on food production.  If you think about it, if "the grid goes down," the most immediate impact for most people is going to be feeding themselves.  Most of us are so far removed from actual food production that the abrupt rupture of those supply lines would.... well, it wouldn't be pretty.  Ware's universe glosses over this a little bit.  Having fast-forwarded 50 years into the future, after the trigger event, she can kind of zoom out from those details and allow the reader to make the reasonable assumption that enough trade is established that the city can feed itself.  The series arc focuses on figuring out what or who caused the cataclysm, and who the mysterious powerful Strangers are.  It has a WW2 Résistance vibe to it, overlaid with good old Cold War-esque conspiracy theory.

The Heroes
I'm loving the characters, and as Casey over at Literary Escapism recently observed, they are nicely diverse, too. (Nothing like the total destruction of civilization as we know it to get humanity to finally pull together, right?)

This delicious group of alpha men in their prime mysteriously survive the cataclysm, because they were deep in the Sonoma caves at the time, and something about the vortexes or ley lines, or mystic hoo-ha protected them.  Like five Cinderellas, they fell into a deep sleep for 50 years while the world changed around them.  When they emerge (I'm not exactly clear on what woke them up?), they are bemused to discover that they each have a paranormal gift; generally as some sort of extension of their pre-event talent.

Really, this is a great setup. Five men, restless, bored, frustratingly purposeless in our times; they're wealthy, athletic, handsome -- but rudderless and reduced to thrill-seeking. Frozen in time for 50 years, their awakening coincides with a culmination of events that lead to some shocking revelations on the depth of human greed and corruption.  The destruction of their world, and the gifts they are given, turn these dilettantes into warriors -- and that's pretty damn hot.

The Heroines
The women of this series are all products of their times, but they run the gamut from hard-bitten former POW, to soft-spoken information specialist, to a post-modern Robin Hood, and world-weary healer.  Generally speaking I think this is a series that's more about the men, but the heroines are well-realized and good partners for their heroes. (I have a particular affection for Robin Hood, err, that is, Zöe), and I like that Ware pairs them up in unlikely ways.

The Tech
You know how "they" always say you should write what you know?  I think in some ways, the opposite also applies: you should NOT read what you know.  It's like how lawyers aren't allowed to serve on juries.  Honestly, Ware does an excellent job overall writing with authority on how things might be, on technology that could survive.  One of the series threads is that the group is working to re-establish the Internet, by setting up wireless outposts around Envy, and propagating beyond from there.

To a degree, this is all feasible and believable.  Sage and Theo and others work feverishly in a basement bunker of Envy, downloading and retrieving cached information from salvaged hard drives.  The wireless transmitters are solar-powered.  You can kind of dig it.  Until you realize that she's talking about retrieving data off FIFTY-YEAR-OLD hard drives and flash drives.  Uh, unfortunately I have to call shenanigans on that. Have you ever tried to dig a file off a dead drive? OK, how about fifty year-old drive?? I'm sorry, that's just Not Happening. Heh. You'd think that if I could buy into vampires and zombies, chambermaids that marry earls, and handsome honorable pirate captains with all their teeth, this wouldn't be such a stretch.

General Thoughts
There were times in these books where I found the prose a little bit of a slog; just... not as effortless or smooth as I'd like.  And the weird villainy gets kind of super-weird there in the fourth book.  Sometimes I felt like the paranormal gifts of the heroes, as well as the sub-plot of the zombies, were distractions from the really interesting parts of the series.

The undeniable thing is though, that the series is fascinating, the world-building has me totally hooked, and I love these heroes. So bring on more Night, Ms. Ware, I'm waiting....

Reading Order & Facts & Stuff
1. Beyond the Night (Elliott & Jade)
2. Embrace the Night Eternal (Simon & Sage)
3. Abandon the Night (Quentin & Zöe)
4. Night Betrayed (Theo & Selena)

According to Ware's website, there are two more Envy books contracted, but no word on when or who.  We're still waiting for Wyatt and Fence's stories, and it would be a shame if Lou Waxnicki didn't get some kind of HEA.

Ware is a pen name of Colleen Gleason, who also writes the arguably more successful "Gardella Vampire" and the new "Regency Draculia" series. I haven't read these, and right now I have to say I'm more interested in Envy. I hope the vampires don't get too distracting.


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