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Shadowhawk reviews the second Dire Earth Cycle novel from this year’s debut author Jason M. Hough.
“Building on what he started with The Darwin Elevator, Hough continues to paint a unique post-apocalyptic vision involving mysterious aliens and space elevators.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Note: Several major spoilers from the previous novel, especially The Darwin Elevator are mentioned in this review.
As someone who doesn’t normally read post-apocalyptic fiction, Jason M. Hough’s The Darwin Elevator proved to be somewhat of a surprise hit. It had some really memorable characters, a really interesting plot, lots of great sci-fi elements, and it had some diversity in its characters, which played well into Hough’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth. And the author ended the novel at a very intriguing cliffhanger that naturally leads into the second novel, and does much to expand on the world-building and deepen all the mysteries surrounding the Darwin space elevator.
When The Exodus Towers begins, we find ourselves in Belem, Brazil, which is the site of the second space elevator as seen towards the climax of The Darwin Elevator. This new elevator has changed the playing field considerably, one of the reasons being that it has come with several dozen mobile “aura-towers” which can be used to create pockets of Aura immunity as needed outside of the influence of the elevator itself. For Skyler, Tania and their breakaway group, the Belem elevator is like a godsend, even thought it comes with some of its own mysteries, which only deepen as the novel progresses on.
Of course, even as the breakaway group establishes itself all the way in Brazil, back in Darwin things aren’t restful either. With Russell Blackfield now in full control of the Darwin Elevator, both on the ground and up in space, there is a wind of change in effect. Even when Russell was just Nightcliff’s chief of security, he was a hard man. Now, being in full power, he is worse, and it shows repeatedly. He is also starting to fall back into the void of believing in his own delusions and ego about his abilities and his position. This sets up some really great moments in the novel, as various people attempt to subvert his authority in little doses and give him a taste of his own medicine. His incompetence as a leader really comes to the fore this time around, and it is so, so enjoyable to watch.
What The Exodus Towers is about at its heart is the relationships between all the different characters. Tania and Skyler. Zane and Tania. Russell and Tania. Skyler and Russell. Russell and Alex. Russell and Grillo. Samantha and Grillo. And so on. Each character has a distinctive relationship with the other. Samantha and Grillo were a surprise subplot in this novel, and their narrative arc I found to be extremely intriguing because of how things turn out between them and through them in Darwin. It really was great to see more of Samantha this time around since she didn’t get much to do in The Darwin Elevator until the end, which is when the character really shined. She is definitely one of my favourite characters in the novel, alongside Tania, Skyler and Zane.
In the previous novel, we were also treated to some revelations about the Darwin Elevator and the foreknowledge that Neil Platz had about events as they unfolded with regards to the elevator and the Builders. This time around, we see some of the fallout of that knowledge, in some really interesting ways, and we also see how this foreknowledge has ended up affecting the “second” generation of characters such as Tania and Zane. This really hit home with the emotional impact that both of them feel, especially Tania given the revelations made in The Darwin Elevator. And we also see how this affects Zane, who is one character to get some really hellish time in The Exodus Towers. Its not as bad as some other characters suffer through in the novel, but given how… matter of fact it all is for him, and his role within the Belem Elevator community, I couldn’t help but get emotional at what he goes through in the second half. Zane really is an understated character and I really wish, in retrospect, that we’d gotten to see a lot more from him.
But that’s not all that you can find here. I mentioned before that the world-building continues apace here, despite the fact that this is a second novel and therefore much of the foundations have already been built. This is where Hough’s ability to throw in some excellent wrenches in the narrative comes from. There are two such twists in the novel.
The first deals with a band of roving immunes in Brazil and their interactions with the Belem community, also known as Camp Exodus. This subplot was absolutely brutal in both its direct effect and its larger implications, not to mention the backstory that is implied. I swear that I felt the urge to vomit at some of the revelations that are made. But I see what Hough was going for, and I applaud him for it. In this post-apocalyptic hell, there will undoubtedly be people who are absolutely ruthless and cold-hearted and they commit certain taboo atrocities that “normal” people just wouldn’t be able to stomach. Hell, these roving immunes make Russell Blackfield look squeaky clean in comparison! Not an easy thing, mind you!
The second of these twists deals with the ongoing effects of the Belem Tower and the event triggered with the arrival of this new elevator. I won’t go into this much, but the changes that the mysterious Builders initiate are on the same level as the introduction of the SUBS virus and the nature of the crazed-out freaks who’ve succumbed fully to the effects of this malaise. Here, Hough created some really heart-wrenching scenes that always had me on the edge of my seat while reading. Imagine that the narrative gets so tense and there is such a heavy sense of something happening that everything is… silent, and then the pin drops. That’s the kind of tension that Hough infused these scenes, that level of excitement. Highly commendable.
Despite how much I enjoyed the book, I do have some criticisms however, and some of them are a holdover from the previous novel.
Number one issue is the pacing, and this ties into the second issue, which is the amount of time that passes here. Thing is, the novel is told over the course of some two years or thereabouts, which is a lot of time to cover in a novel, narratively speaking. Largely, this was not a problem for me in general, except when you get into the specifics. There are some plot devices used to convey that a significant amount of time has passed, and often times this falls into the realm of this being stated explicitly. Essentially, “life carries on for a month as things are built up”. Its not problematic on its own, but this kind of approach was used a bit too much, and this grated on me a bit. Naturally, this affected the pacing.
Another thing I had an issue with is that the entire subplot involving the band of immunes in Brazil felt tacked on and unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it a lot, but it was over far too quickly, and it didn’t really add much to plot progression until its very climax. I would have preferred instead to have seen more of that second twist that I mentioned, because I found that much more exciting and much more directly relevant to plot progression.
Those are my only quibbles with the novel. In every other respect, The Exodus Towers is a fantastic novel and is one of those that I’d love to re-read should an opportunity present itself. Jason M. Hough has proven once again to be a really good writer and I certainly want to see more from him. I’m hoping to get the third and final novel in the series, The Plague Forge read by the end of the year. Let’s hope that happens!