Despite having all sorts of little jobs and things to be doing, yesterday turned out to be the Day of Wool. I picked it up in the morning, intending to just read the first part, and the next thing I knew it was midnight and I'd finished all 500+ pages. It's not often a book sweeps me away like that, but when it happens, it's magic.
Wool is a dystopian novel that started life as a longish short story, self published by the author on Amazon. Before long, people were clamouring for more stories set in this fascinating world, so the author obliged, and Wool grew into a five part epic novel. You can barely see the join now, and if I didn't already know, I might never have realised that the first part was originally self-contained.
The setting for Wool is a vast underground silo where tens of thousands of people live protected from the hostile atmosphere outside. The people of the silo know no other life and have no conception of a time when people lived outside, except in legend. Quite what mankind has done to make the planet a such a toxic wasteland is one of the book's many mysteries, but anyone who ventures out of the silo is assured a short but painful death. Just outside are sensors, or cameras, which project an image of the outside world to the silo's occupants. Though this image is bleak, it's the only one they have, and the people of the silo value this window on the world very highly. A form of capital punishment exists for criminals, and indeed for anyone who expresses the forbidden wish to go outside. They are sent out to clean the sensors, improving the valuable view for their fellow citizens but dying themselves in the process.
Part one of the novel follows the silo's sherriff, Holston, whose wife went out to clean three years before. People assumed it was insanity that made her ask to go outside, but Holston's not so sure. After three years turning it over in his mind, he's about ready to go insane himself. Part two switches the focus onto the silo's mayor and deputy sherriff, both getting on in years, who go on a journey together to the bottom of the silo to appoint a new official. These two share a special but complicated relationship, and this section of the book was really very touching and delicately done. It's also where we come to realise the sheer scale of the silo. With around 150 giant floors linked by a single stairwell, journeys from one end to the other resemble mountaineering expeditions and can take several days. The silo has everything - gardens, farms, markets, hospitals, schools - and at the very bottom are the mechanical sections and a mine, where the people live who keep the whole thing going.
I loved the way the silo's inhabitants differed according to where they lived and worked. The people near the top are the office workers, concerned with their view and paying little attention to what goes on further down. Below them are the strivers, constantly trying to better themselves and move further up, both figuratively and literally. At the bottom are the manual workers, salt of the earth, who care little for the politics and intrigue of the upper floors and without whom the whole silo would quickly fail. It's an interesting take on the class system and it really works well.
In the third part of the book our focus switches to Juliette, a woman from the "down deep", who is plucked from obscurity for high office on the top floor. She's intelligent, ballsy and tries to bring the loyalty and values of the down deepers to her new role, making her perfect as the novel's main heroine. Unfortunately, all is not well in the silo, and Juliette is to meet opposition from the shadowy figures of the mysterious IT department. The plot twists left me gasping - at one point almost every chapter ends on a cliffhanger - and I was utterly consumed by this book all day.
There's a definite nod to George Orwell's 1984 in Wool, and it also reminded me strongly of the Fallout games. Howey obviously has many influences which, together with his own imagination and talent for storytelling, make this a fantastic novel and one of the best page-turners I've read in ages. I've already started recommending this to everyone I can think of - it's one of those books you just have to tell people about - and I'd be amazed if Wool didn't become a massive best-seller. I'm dying to start the prequel, Shift, but it's being released in installments and I know I couldn't cope with being left on a cliffhanger, so I shall wait until the whole thing's out in the spring. For Wool, it can only be five stars.