In a dark future where water is scarce and disease runs rampant, a young revolutionary plots the downfall of an authoritarian government.
Readers are forewarned: At more than 700 pages, this slab of dystopian fiction could swallow most epics whole—and this is still just the first entry in a planned trilogy. Where to begin? Let’s start with the literary conceit. The novel posits itself as a work in translation, taken from the Slovnik nonfiction book by fictional “Aleksandr Tuvim.” The real authors are its “translators,” debut novelists Elliott (Comparative Literature/Univ. of Illinois; From The Crooked Timber, 2011, etc.) and Clement, who chime in with the occasional footnote. After something called “The Great Calamity,” the nation has emerged as “The Federated States of America,” divided by seven tribes into seven cities. In the wake of the poisoning of its largest body of water, Joshua City’s people are not only thirsty, but also suffering from “nekrosis,” a flesh-rotting disease. To keep his constituents in line, the malevolent Mayor Adams declares war on another faction in a plot to centralize control. There is an enormous cast, but the book primarily concerns itself with three character arcs. Nikolas Kovalski is our hero figure, a medical student who turns on the system to lead “The Underground” resistance movement as a Che Guevara–like revolutionary thinker. His best friend is Adrian Talbot, a budding young doctor who believes he can do more good inside the system, treating patients. Lastly, there’s Nikolas’ older brother, Marcik Kovalski, who joins the Baikal Guards but later impersonates a dead officer, Gen. Schmidt, becoming the leader of the very army that Nikolas swears to upend. The book operates on an elaborate scale but can be unwieldy in its attempts to shoehorn in political strategy, sci-fi tropes, moods drawn from bleak points in 20th-century history and the occasional romance.
An epic novel of good and evil that may have more ambition than its story can support.