Review: “The Cost of Survival,” J.L. Stowers

Rating: 3 out of 5

For the first half of J.L. Stowers’s science fiction novel The Cost of Survival: Book 1 of Genesis Rising, I figured I’d be giving it a 2/5. Instead, by the ending I felt it had recovered enough to merit a 3/5. The first half is extremely slow and ponderous, with non-sympathetic characters and a ton of info-dumps. The second half ties things together, admits revelations, and even has some action to it. Not to mention, the characters grow and become sympathetic. If the first half of the book wasn’t so uninteresting (I very nearly stopped reading the book several times), this would have gotten a much better score. The author isn’t clear at first whether we’re on Earth or not, whether we’re in the past or future, whether a journal’s events take place recently or a long time ago, etc. The author was so intent on keeping everything a secret–whether it was warranted or not–that instead the book was just confusing. The result is that instead of these tiny “secrets” feeling like nifty reveals, they just brought a small feeling of relief and “about time!”

Walt Marshall has been sent to another planet. Earth is having problems, and his job is to figure out how to get food crops growing so that a colony can be started. He’s startled to find remnants of a civilization when he’s been told that the planet’s primitive residents died off long ago. He even finds a journal written in a language that looks oddly familiar to him. As he does his work and secretly translates what turns out to be a very disturbing journal, things build to a very dangerous conclusion.

At first I totally disliked Walt. He sneers in nearly every paragraph. The military man in charge, Jacobs, confiscates most of the artifacts Walt finds, although Walt manages to hide the journal. The two of them don’t exactly get along, and frankly neither of them seems like a particularly nice character. When Caitlyn is brought in to be Walt’s assistant, we start to see slightly better sides of Jacobs and Walt, but Walt doesn’t yet know if she can be trusted with the knowledge imparted by the journal. There are whole sections about things like Walt and his dead wife’s attempts to have a child, and how the fertility and birth rates on Earth have dropped like a stone. This does eventually become relevant, so try to hang on through it. What really changes the pace and makes things interesting is when a colony ship arrives from Earth, well ahead of schedule.

I’m mildly turned off by the obvious cliche of men becoming their better selves when there’s a pretty woman around. That said, I really did feel like Walt and Jacobs grew throughout the story and genuinely became better people. I enjoyed seeing that–it was one of the highlights of the book. I also appreciated the fact that there’s some genuine action in the second half of the book–it improved the pacing immeasurably.

There is a section where some decisions seem to be made just to further the plot. For example, the captain of the colony ship leaves Walt and Cait alone near a restricted area of the ship when she gets an urgent call, rather than doing anything at all to prevent them from finding it. And when Walt and Cait find the restricted area, Walt’s response is a remarkably blase decision that even though it was clearly marked, it didn’t have a locked door, so it must not be that restricted. I was also disappointed that Walt started to develop romantic feelings for Cait. I wanted to be able to just enjoy the blossoming friendship between the two, and it was starting to feel like her only meaningful role in the book was her effect on Jacobs and Walt.

If you like lots of world-building and don’t mind very slow background material, you’ll almost certainly like the first half better than I did. The second half really brought everything together in a fascinating manner, though, so if you have the patience to get through the first half, the second makes it worthwhile.

Content note for death, stillbirth, and forced pregnancy.

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