Written by: Andrew Cyrus Hudson
A thousand miles of stone black pavement
Along the war torn, snow packed plains.
Beckons you to soon forget
The place you once called home.
In the middle of a world wide war against an anonymous alien force, self-described "world's worst poet" HC Diego takes eight-year-old Aimée Dumont across America to see her father. However, the two quickly find out that the mission is not as simple as it sounds. Armed with only an old M1 Carbine, a Glock 35, and sheer wits, HC Diego and Aimée Dumont discover new places, grand adventures, and constant dangers. And soon, they'll find a close companion as well.
A copy of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review.
Poem for the Wolves is an ambitious book. Spanning over 600 e-book pages, a cross-country adventure and a heck of a lot of action, this book clearly aspires to the standard set by Stephen King with his post-apocalyptic classic The Stand. Considering The Stand is one of King's best received novels, the question is less "does Poems for the Wolves reach the dizzying heights set by King", because such a feet would be near impossible even for an author more established than Hudson. Instead, the question should be, "has Hudson done something new and exciting with the genre?"
Hudson treads the fine line between well-known tropes and exciting new terrain, for the most part, with great success. The world created in this book is an interesting one. After a fleet of aliens attacked Earth we lost the battle, but have yet to lose the war. Life is a constant battlefield, they can attack anywhere, and suddenly. But while people are battling the aliens, life is still going on somewhat as usual. There's school and work, people can live in their houses (when they aren't being invaded by aliens), and they fall in love. It's not post-apocalyptic or even apocalyptic, it encompasses this liminal space, a snapshot of life amidst the chaos as humanity tries to keep things moving forward while an outside force strives to take them down. Much of the book takes place on the front line, so to speak, and I kind of wish we'd had a chance to view more of how life was lived in the midst of this hell. Luckily there are flashback scenes with our principal characters so we do get a peek at how different families and groups spread across the country handled the news of the attack and the early shock and terror of the alien's first arrival but I wanted more. Maybe more of a World War Z approach, or more time spent with the people they meet and their story.
The aliens are also interesting. They're a faceless, nameless foe, and through the course of the novel they're referred to, in bold, as They. They might be invading Earth, but they're oddly prehistoric in their attack. Their weapon shoots needles, and while they do prove fatal quite often, their fatality really depends on where on the body they hit the human. And their attack wasn't a surprise. Or not entirely. Our technology meant we first caught sight of them two years before their arrival, and while that gave us a certain amount of time to prepare, it clearly wasn't enough. Because of the anonymous them status of our alien friends, they're utilised more as roadblocks for our characters... tremendous roadblocks that like to fight back with sharp, pointy things.
But now onto our characters. HC is our protagonist. He's young, smart and handy with a gun, but he has some growing up to do. He's also saddled with the responsibility of getting an 8 year old home to her dad, a trip that's going to take them through towns and cities under constant barrage by the aliens. Aimée is young, precocious and amazingly brave considering the situation. When I began reading this book I'd just finished The Walking Dead videogame and the relationship struck me as very similar. HC wasn't a criminal like the protagonist in The Walking Dead, but the relationship between man and child, and the on-the-fly adapting to raising a child in a dangerous situation was similar. Perhaps I was projecting my relationship with the characters in the game with the characters in the book, but I felt like I understood and cared about their relationship from the instant the book started. While the two of them journey to find Aimée's father, they join forces with various combat groups, come up against roving criminals and make friends in the unlikeliest of places. There are other characters that join these two along the way. There's Shelley, HC's love interest, who joins them fairly early on. Jim and Marla Casey, a brother and sister wanting to move to California. And a motley array of friendly, aggressive, perfectionist, jokers in the college militia.
As I said before, the book is ambitious, and ambition can be risky. Besides the alien invasion, the story flits back to before the alien's arrival and to during the first days of the attack. Between each chapter there are a couple of poems that HC, self-acclaimed "world's worst poet", wrote along the journey, and Hudson employs a plethora of literary techniques and devices to tell his story. Some of the devices were really enjoyable. I loved that any time a character died, whether we'd known the for one sentence or 10 chapters, their death was book-ended with the sentence "X was Y years old". It brought the reality of the situation crashing down. Most of the people we meet in the story are civilians who take up arms to protect their homes, towns and country. Some are college students, some are parents, some are actual military personnel. Whoever they are, their death is felt by someone, on some level. It was a nice token to remind the reader of the situation, and help people put themselves into the battle. The poems I was less jazzed about. I can't honestly comment on the quality of them because I really dislike reading poetry, so I'll refrain from commenting on them completely. But they are short and they're reflections on the previous action, so if you don't like poetry you can always skip them.
The flashbacks I loved because I liked to see the comparison between life before, during the initial attack/arrival and now. I also loved that in a lot of the cases, the characters had actually found a better life after the invasion because it was the push they needed to get out of their dull or oppressive lives, or to force them to make a decision about their future. But in some cases the stories didn't quite feel like they aligned with the rest of the book or with the characters. Aimée's story for instance comes right towards the end and what you learn from her flashbacks are really quite troubling but I didn't feel like the other character's reacted enough and Aimée, young though she is, didn't seem to realise the severity of what she was telling the others. If a little bit more time had been taken in these flashbacks maybe the extra fleshing out of the story would fill in those odd gaps and miscommunication. And on top of the literary choices, the writing itself felt a little stiff at times. Some of the dialogue didn't feel natural, or was too formal given the age and backgrounds of the characters. And while I felt like the action was written clearly, (the opening sequence was a really great way to start the novel, meet HC and Aimée and introduce the aliens) and with the excitement necessary for action scenes, the occasional issue that popped up in the dialogue and flashback scenes upset the flow of the novel and the pacing suffered a few hiccups.
Any book this ambitious is going to have problems, especially when it's only the author's second novel. Because of the flaws and the time investment the epic size and story necessitates this isn't a book for everyone, but while it may not be joining The Stand on people's bookshelves just yet I think the story itself has a lot of promise and heart and just like Hudson's first novel Drift, it marks the promise of this young author.