Today, I’m reviewing two books I read recently in a genre I almost never reach for: anything to do with natural disasters and their fallout. I’m a natural sciences student, which means this topic isn’t something I usually want to be reading about in my free time as well.
Last year, I identified “being about natural disasters” as one of the reasons The Fifth Season didn’t work for me. I wanted to see if I could find something in the genre I actually like, or if this is a topic I just can’t read about.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Me and the post-apocalyptic genre just don’t get along.
Or, more specifically: remind me I should be wary of anything that uses Mad Max as a comp. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve now read several books it’s compared to, and the main thing they have in common is that they think very frequent action scenes are a good way to keep the reader interested, which is never going to work for me. I mean, I’m going to get through the book very quickly, that’s true; and that’s because nothing encourages me to skim as often.
Most action scenes are boring, and so is this book. So much of it felt like characters moving around from one place to another to either fight someone/something or recover from fighting someone/something, without any other aim. When I consider not finishing while I’ve only 20% left, there’s usually something very wrong with the story, but I don’t think that’s the case here – I think I’m just not the right kind of reader for this, and that’s fine. This book is doing a lot of things, some subtly and some not, like questioning the very heart of the post-apocalyptic genre: isn’t the concept of “apocalypse” what happens when a catastrophe befalls the privileged, after all? The Diné have gone through their own apocalypse before, it’s just not called that by the rest of the world.
There’s also the reversal of several tropes common in paranormal fiction, one of the most interesting examples being the character of Kai – a male love interest whose characteristics and capabilities are usually associated with female characters in fantasy. To avoid spoiler territory, I will say that for example he is kind of there to be very pretty, even if that’s far from his only role. Because of these things, he was probably the most interesting character around; I found most of the side ones to be extremely underwhelming, with maybe the exception of Coyote.
This very much includes a certain someone who is built up as this legendary figure and then is actually as interesting as cardboard with an Evil Hat™. I see possessiveness as insecurity, and given that it seems a huge part of his character once we meet him, I was never able to take him seriously (this, by the way, is a big part of why straight villain/heroine sexual tension rarely works for me anymore. The evil man archetype from this subculture™ is so fragile and kind of pathetic.)
As far as the other side characters, there’s a good reason we never really get to know them, or have a feeling on who they really are, and that reason is the main character, Maggie. She holds everyone at a distance, and that reflects on the story. This is a book about a traumatized woman who has known nothing but fighting and death for a long while, and her character arc involves learning that she can be something else as well. I don’t have any complaints about the development, but the thing about this book is that it feels very much like a set-up for the sequels, and just when we’re getting to a somewhat interesting part with Maggie’s arc, it ends. I’m not going to read the sequel because clearly this is not my kind of thing independently from execution, but I do wonder if the side characters get more development as Maggie learns to let people in. I hope that’s the case.
My rating: ★★½
Depart, Depart by Sim Kern
I wish I could not shelve this book as contemporary.
Depart, Depart follows Noah, a Jewish trans man who ends up in a shelter after a hurricane devastates Houston. It’s a story about what societal collapse brings out in people – about connection and grief and rage, about how catastrophe puts even more of a target on marginalized people’s backs.
I usually can’t read stories about natural disasters, but this one worked for me – I couldn’t stop reading it. Maybe it’s because it’s short even for a novella, maybe it’s because it’s not as hopeless as it could have been, despite being realistically bleak; maybe it’s because reading from the point of view of someone who is also constantly afraid makes it paradoxically less exhausting. (I don’t have to feel all of it on my own, I guess?)
The most chilling part of reading Depart, Depart is that it feels exactly like something one could see playing out. Not only because it follows a climate disaster that could actually happen in the present, but because of how real the characters and their dynamics felt. The portrayal of the queer “found family” feels close to reality from the big picture – how queer people quickly group together from the beginning, because there’s safety in numbers, but also how the most privileged and rich don’t care about the others once they’re safe themselves – to the details, like accusations of oppression olympics during tense moments, the non-binary person wondering about vegan options, Mountain Goats mentions… I’m not American but if you’ve been around US trans twitter for enough time, you know these people. That’s why it hurts.
All the while, Noah is being haunted by visions of his great-grandfather, who escaped Nazi Germany as a boy. There are parallels between Noah’s situation and Abe’s, and this story also follows what it means for Noah to be Jewish and raised in an atheist family – the history that goes with that, and what has been passed down to him in good and bad and all the ways in between.
After all, this felt like a story about how we can’t change what was, but we can choose to not repeat someone else’s – or our own – mistakes. Noah has left behind people in the past to tragic circumstances, but now he can choose to stay with the people he’s grown to care about – because something Depart, Depart highlights is the importance of connections between people, how they save us in the most difficult times.
My rating: ★★★★½
So, these were surprisingly readable! While Trail of Lightning didn’t work for me, it wasn’t mainly because of the natural disaster elements, though that’s still a background I don’t feel particularly drawn to when it comes to picking up fantasy stories.
I’m realizing that for the most part, I prefer stories about natural disasters to be as close to reality as possible – which sounds paradoxical when one of the reasons these are usually so unreadable for me is “anxiety disorder”, but I think I know why. I really appreciated Depart, Depart, but I didn’t enjoy it the way I usually enjoy a novel – if that makes sense, it’s closer to the kind of liking I get from reading nonfiction, though not exactly. My brain was in a completely different mode, and while I’m in that ~serious mode, I honestly can’t be bothered with fantasy worldbuilding or something like that: ~serious mode already takes up a lot of energy. I will never be the kind of person who says that fantasy can’t deal with difficult and heavy topics (it… should) but if it’s a topic I have a lot of anxiety about at the moment, I prefer to stay away from them.
What’s your opinion on books following natural disasters & the post-apocalyptic genre? Have you read or want to read any of these?