After humanity suffers a massive strike by flying drones and other exotic weaponry, a West Coast resident—seeking his missing wife—gets help from fellow survivors.
In his debut novel, Woods (Birthright, 2018, etc.) dispenses with character backstories (even last names, for the most part) and gets right down to apocalypse business. One morning, in a vaguely Oregonian setting, first-person narrator Steve—a handy guy who is ultimately revealed as a motor sports enthusiast—is a shocked witness as gas stations shut down, pleading a lack of fuel deliveries; media go offline; and, without warning, thousands of military-grade flying drones cut down every person in sight (mysteriously sparing animals). The drones use either insidious needlelike projectiles or their own razor-sharp blades. Other corpses, mostly inside buildings, display no signs of violence whatsoever. Only hours before, Steve had parted with his beloved wife, Michelle. Now he searches for her in the eerie, silent landscape, soon gathering a stunned handful of survivors around him. Steve also, providentially, happens to live with Michelle in a 1950s home outfitted for atomic-war survival, so he has a ready-made bunker, video surveillance, and provisions for a possible siege. Meanwhile, the survivors discover methods of shielding themselves from the drones’ probing sensors. Via hacking into cellphones and rigging old electronics components into mini-EMP bombs, Steve and his resourceful band even manage to disable and destroy drones en masse.
When Hayley, a medical technologist who is one of Steve’s seemingly random freedom fighters, reveals she is intimately familiar with the nanotechnology behind the massacre, even the hero (not to mention readers) has to wonder how all these problem-solving elements fall into place so neatly. He ponders whether there’s a conspiracy at work, a helpful God, or “just a bunch of dumbass luck, and I should probably quit looking a gift horse in the mouth.” Even so, deep into this series opener, there are still numerous enigmas, as formerly domesticated dogs turn on humans and the once-ubiquitous corpses start to disappear, apparently hauled away by enslaved but living people. Minus pat answers, an aura of mystery and shock-awe wonder sustains the material—not unlike those M. Night Shyamalan cinematic thrillers before the scripts drop their thuddingly lame, third-act explanations. Woods, meanwhile, deftly keeps readers guessing almost up to the to-be-continued ending. He writes of the heartless, War of the Worlds–style murder of billions with a disarmingly steady, even aw-shucks manner, though his protagonist explains pragmatic survivor psychology: “It wasn’t that we had totally lost empathy for the dead; we just didn’t look at a body the same anymore. It was merely a piece of flesh, not unlike a dead animal in the road....We just didn’t associate the dead bodies with the people that used to occupy them anymore. We couldn’t. We saw too many of them, and it would drive us all insane.” In a homey touch, the author has grafted character traits of himself (and his wife) onto the idealized key players.
A plainspoken, apocalyptic techno-shocker adventure, told in a sometimes disconcertingly casual voice.