Pros: So beautifully detailed!
Cons: Small bits here and there
Rating: 4 out of 5
Vance Huxley’s Fall of the Cities: Putting Down Roots is the sequel to his Fall of the Cities: Planting the Orchard. Now we get to watch the characters building their new world up one brick and rule at a time (a literal worldbuilding plot). The tale in book two picks up a few months into the craziness that cut off so many cities from each other. At least where they are in Britain they haven’t been overrun by outside mobs, unlike some other cities. Harold “Soldier Boy” Miller (ex-British Army pay clerk) is still half-leader half-figurehead for the folks in Orchard Close. A committee makes many of the internal rules, but when someone has to bargain or hammer things out with the other enclaves/gangs, that’s Harold’s job. He scares their enemies just enough to reduce the likelihood of an attempted takeover. We’re also introduced to a mysterious, evil cabal that is trying to remake the world, reduce its population drastically, and so on. I think this volume tackles the nitty-gritty worldbuilding more than the first one, and if you aren’t interested in worldbuilding you might want to try something else.
Rape is used too flagrantly as a danger. At a meeting of four major gang heads, it became clear that Orchard Close is pretty much the only group that doesn’t see women as currency. We really need to see a dissenter or two; I refuse to believe that virtually every man in the city is a rapist waiting to happen, even during the apocalypse. Later on in the book we do get passing reference to a couple of people in other enclaves not being total rape-happy dicks, but it wasn’t enough and it took too long to come up.
The shadowy cabal is a smirking conspiracy with cartoonishly evil bad guys. The only thing I like about them was that their plans keep going wrong. Which, when all your plans rely on pushing mobs and rioters in the right directions, should go wrong a lot. However, the details of their plans get more and more ludicrous and farcical as time goes on. I kind of wonder if the publisher made the author put them in to explain why the cities were being affected in the way they were (something that was missing from the previous volume). Because frankly, it reads like the author thought they were ludicrous too.
I love so much of the worldbuilding. For instance, when Harold considers who to give weapons and training to, he takes into account not just who has skill or can be trained well, but also who would be capable of killing someone when necessary. There’s an acknowledgement that not everyone would be, and there are members of both genders on the sides of this issue. People’s past traumas often figure in, as do new traumas. Another detail I loved is that skilled workers become incredibly valuable since the bad guys gave most people with useful skills passes out of the city, and the supplies for their work are limited. From dentists to plumbers, gun maintenance to electrical, there’s an acknowledgement that skilled labor can be every bit as valuable as good fighters. The enclaves are forced to find ways to bargain with expertise without risking another enclave simply keeping their worker. Also, taking in all the refugees they do does eventually result in a couple of backfires.
There’s a group of women in Orchard Close who tend to flirt with and tease Harold endlessly. At first I thought it was a bit of Mary Sue-ism, with the main character getting all the sexual attention just because he’s the main character. But then I thought about the fact that many of these women were traumatized, usually sexually. Since Harold isn’t looking for a girlfriend or friend with benefits, he’s a ‘safe’ person they can practice their flirting and personal contact with, while knowing it won’t result in, say, his assaulting them claiming that they asked for it by teasing him. And often these women do later end up pairing up with someone entirely different, once they’ve regained enough confidence and equanimity to approach someone else. I found the tone of this group, and their humorous antics, reminded me of the group of ladies in Anne Bishop’s “Others” series, particularly in tone. The major difference is that our main character is on the outside looking in, rather than the inside looking out.
Because rape is so prevalent, it becomes a major crime in Orchard Close. There’s definitely an aspect of ‘justice porn’ to the results. The women of Orchard Close can be somewhat murderous, when they get mad. It’s an interesting look at what happens when you have to create your own justice, while balancing that with dealing with other enclaves which have entirely different mores and morals. Also, it isn’t as though anyone can spare the supplies to house and feed a prisoner, meaning justice has to be swift and decisive. The author doesn’t spend much time moralizing; he just lets us see what can happen when we reach a point where we have to do terrible things in order to survive. Most of the story involves dealing with neighbors and bargaining, and the delicate balance of the town’s enclaves. For a while I thought of the Orchard Close rule that people have to watch their language and not swear as silly and ridiculous. But I eventually decided that it’s an easy way to see whether someone’s going to be willing to abide by their rules, and it helps to maintain a bit of decorum, particularly since there are women and children in the enclave. It’s partly a test, and partly a way of keeping things civilized.
With so many characters, I do wish the author had been a little more careful to keep names different (Lenny/Lemmy, Barry/Berry) so as to remember who’s who more easily.
Since most of the story concerns the worldbuilding, it would be easy to fail to provide enough tension. However, I think Huxley pulls it off. I was delighted when a plot part required Harold to use his skills with guns, and the slow buildup to taking one single shot totally hooked me and ratcheted up the tension!
Several events that I won’t spoil for you made me bawl like a little girl.
Book provided free by publisher for review