It is with great pleasure that I participate in another book tour with Storytellers on Tour, this time for The Wrack by John Bierce! I was excited to dive into a story about the rampant spread of a plague while still under lockdown in the midst of our own COVID pandemic. Sometimes stories can help us look at life around us more directly, even though it may be a fiction.
Without further ado, let’s dive into The Wrack tour…
AUGUST 2ND– The Opening
Whispers & Wonder
Armed with A Book
Olliespot SFF Bookreview
The Sword Smith
Spells & Spaceships
Out of This World SFF Reviews
The Coycaterpillar Reads
Fantasy Book Critic
AUGUST 8TH– The Closing
For more about this tour visit Storytellers On Tour.
Plague has come to the continent of Teringia.
As the Wrack makes its slow, relentless march southwards, it will humble kings and healers, seers and merchants, priests and warriors. Behind, it leaves only screams and suffering, and before it, spreads only fear.
Lothain, the birthplace of the Wrack, desperately tries to hold itself together as the plague burns across it and its neighbors circle like vultures. The Moonsworn healers would fight the Wrack, but must navigate distrust and violence from the peoples of Teringia. Proud Galicanta readies itself for war, as the Sunsworn Empire watches and waits for the Wrack to bring its rival low.
And the Wrack advances, utterly unconcerned with the plans of men.
I want to begin by first acknowledging how truly eerie it must have been to be writing and releasing a book in tandem with the beginnings of an actual global pandemic. I can only imagine how strange that must have been.
And while this book is about a global epidemiological event, the Wrack itself is not a virus but a zoonotic parasite. We can take comfort in the thin veil of separation that this difference provides! All joking aside, this was an engaging read not just for its correlation with real-world events, but because of the way in which it is written—ideas that are captivating and unique coupled with a structure that is unconventional and that sometimes gets in the narrative’s way.
The Wrack follows no one person or perspective. In twenty-five chapters, we follow fifteen or so different characters from their perspective. I must admit that I lost count only because it became difficult to be emotionally invested in any of the characters immersed in this event because this novel is not about the characters at all—it is a story that centers wholly on the Wrack (the plague). This approach is unusual, and it does serve to propel an aspect of the plot into prominence as a character in its own right. However, it felt like I, as the reader, was continually being held at a distance to the story.
In having so many different small glimpses into various characters’ circumstances, the book felt more like reading a series of vignettes compiled into a montage than a cohesive narrative. Characters introduced early in the story—that were even sent off on seemingly important missions—were never picked up again. And, without giving too much away, characters introduced at the very end of the narrative wound up being instrumental to the resolution causing a sort of whiplash.
This narrative structural choice aside, the way The Wrack played out is intriguing. As we are experiencing now globally, pandemics are frequently periods of panic until suddenly a seemingly random breakthrough occurs that is truthfully the result of thousands of hours of dedicated research hidden from the public eye and, ultimately, the mythos that results. I do think that there is some reflection on that in the overall arc of the plague. However, I also found that because I could not connect to any of the characters, I didn’t necessarily have any emotional connection to the conclusion.
Keeping the reader at a distance is a persistent issue and is only compounded by the fact that we are removed entirely from the present action of the story in the final chapters. Throughout, we are following the course of the Wrack and the characters entrenched within it. Everything is happening in the present, and it is captivating even with the issues that I describe above! Yet, in the final chapters, we come to a resolution spoken as though it is the past tense, something that happened that is related to the reader from no particular point of view. It completely pulled me out of the emotional tension that could have been by grounding the narrative in the present action and making the reader privy to what was happening from the perspective of characters already involved.
Let me pause for a moment to say I am so detailed in these criticisms simply because the ideas present in this book are so good. I give it three stars because, while many of my complaints would have warranted a lower rating for me in many other books, there was also much to praise. The system of magic present with the Seers and Healers, and how gemstone eyes are used and transferred out to view different currents in the spirit realm, was fascinating. I would read a whole book centered on that system, and I looked at the author’s other work to see if this took place in the same universe just to see if I could! The semaphore towers that utilized these same currents to transmit messages was also an excellent piece of world-building. The Moonsworn and their gifted healing/seeing and the storytelling surrounding them in places reminded me a bit of the Orogenes in N. K. Jemison’s The Broken Earth trilogy (one of my favorite series).
The politics in the world are only hinted at, but what we are given is fascinating. The Empress’s throne of wires that transmits the vibrations of sound to echo through her kingdom was delightful, and there are glimpses into complex global politics of which I would have genuinely liked to see more. I think that there are ideas in this book that could have been fleshed out to joining the ranks of profoundly political fantasy like The Priory and the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. I also believe that the Wrack itself could have loomed even larger had the politics of the people affected been shown to be absolutely ineffective and even farcical. Because what institution can stand in abstracted power alone against an unknown contagion that kills thousands with impunity?
So, here I am, with a bifurcated review filled with soaring praise and penetrating criticism. Three stars felt like an appropriate rating for me, and I will say that I am glad to have read this book! It is clever in its ideas, the prose is solid, and I read through the book at a fast pace. I was interested in what happened despite the things that I did not like. I think that anyone interested in immersive fantasy worlds will find something to love about this book. Beyond that, people engaged in fantasy that explores darker themes, particularly as it is very topically relevant, will also enjoy this book. It is worth picking up and spending time in the world, and, I think, to reflect on the present moment in our own.
John Bierce is a fantasy novelist, history and science buff, SFF fan, and general all-around dork. He is currently traveling the world as a digital nomad, but spends a lot more time observing the urban ecology of drainage ditches in other countries than visiting glamorous tourist destinations. (Did you know that Southeast Asia has freshwater crabs? Who are apparently fantastic parents, unlike basically every other crab species ever? It’s definitely surprising the first time you see a crab wandering around in a ditch hundreds of miles from the ocean.)
You can find him at his website.
But wait, there’s more…
As a part of this tour, the author has provided the opportunity for a chance to win one of FIVE physical copies of the book. The giveaway will run from Sunday, August 2nd at 12:00am EDT until Sunday August 9th at 11:59pm EDT.
Follow THIS LINK to enter for your chance to win!