Behind the Ruins by Michael Lane is gritty, post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. From the jacket:
The world didn’t end when the meteors came; it changed.
We meet Grey in the process of killing three people intent on robbing and murdering him. The deaths solve nothing; instead, what he finds on one of the bodies leads to a bloody trip through the wreckage of a world scarred by a near-apocalypse, and inward through his own memories. In the process he becomes involved in a plan that could mean the return of the world he knew as a child, in the time before the Fall.
During his trek from British Columbia into the former United States he must overcome both his own bleak memories and the murderous forces of an old friend. The lessons he takes away and the decisions he makes will determine not only if he has a future, but whether civilization does.
The cover is pretty terrible, but as an indie book this isn’t so unusual. It is definitely a case of not judging a book by its cover. The writing style is excellent, particularly for the genre; he does not use excessive adjectives and allows the world to unfold for the reader, showing rather than telling about the people, places and events the book covers. I really appreciated his rationale for the apocalypse that doesn’t involve GSBs (Giant Space Bats).
The story unfolds in territories stretching from Canada to Oregon. Many surviving settlements are detailed in a brief-but-informative fashion, painting a compelling picture of each without drowing the reader in exposition. The population levels feel on target for a post-industry society, as do the various societies that have emerged in the aftermath of the meteor showers that destroyed civilization. He explains how guns still are in use in limited scale in a believable fashion, and mentions reloading ammo a couple of times – without beating you over the head with it.
The four primary post-fall societies that are detailed include a valley of hunter-trappers in Canada, a lakeside settlement in Washington, a fictional “castle” that was once a Dep’t of Homeland Security bunker, and to the east, a resurgent America slowly bringing a measure of civilization and security back from the dead. Each is slowly exposed through the telling of the story, as experienced by the characters, and this was a great touch by the author.
The main character, known only as Grey, begins the story by killing three marauders who are hunting him through the wilds of Canada. He is enigmatic in the beginning, and slowly throughout the book his history is revealed to beautifully and believably explain both his personality and his current circumstances, as well as providing a solid rationale for his decision to go on the adventure covered within the book. His journey is one of personal redemption, and I loved watching this all unfold.
Grey’s companions, acquaintances and friends are numerous and each feels both unique and possessing depth of character. These are not one-dimensional foils. They aren’t furniture, but living, breathing people with history, passions and goals of their own, sometimes at cross-purposes to Grey’s own. Some, such as Grey’s love interest in the lakeside town, may not even survive (off camera) at the end of the book, and the uncertainty of it feels painful. I found myself hoping for a sequel just to see if she lived long enough for Grey to return to her.
The villain of the story is also not a charicature of bad-assery. He’s evil, certainly, but I always felt I could understand why he did the things he did, and how he came to be that way. This guy just did what he had to in order to survive, and that led down a path he embraced out of necessity, but one senses he could have been a much different person with just a few different choices at key points in his life. Grey was the same way, but did make those different choices (eventually), so they remain flip sides of the same coin. It was pretty compelling stuff.
This was the highlight for me. It was beautifully personal to all those experiencing it, and in fact it’s revealed only through their eyes. Different characters experience the same event differently. Some are overjoyed at the return of some measure of US government; others are hostile to the idea, feeling betrayed by the government in the first place; others are wary of their motives. That’s just one example, but there are many throughout the novel.
Without giving away the story, Grey kills the three bandits following him, but on their bodies finds a map that foreshadows both the return of some form of government, and an impending invasion by marauder forces; the two are deeply intertwined. Grey takes a small group of hand-picked companions to try to avert the crisis facing his own small community, and gets drawn deeply into an unfolding drama that is definitely larger than the immediate concerns of his adopted community or himself. In the end, their choices and actions dance with those of the villains and other forces to spin out an end result that might have been very different otherwise.
One interesting trait was that, while most novels lean heavily towards physical hardship to test the protagonist, Behind the Ruins has a great blend of personal, emotional, spiritual and physical conflicts to provide the tension in Grey’s “Hero’s Journey.” It has action, but is not purely an action story.
This was a wonderful story. The author’s writing style is clean and smooth, without the jarring moments that sometimes rip a reader out of the experience of the story. The plot was solid and believable and the people and places within the scope of the story are well developed without being mundane. I ended the book hoping for a sequel, which is probably the highest compliment I can give any book.