Review: “Wool Omnibus”

Wool Omnibus (Wool, #1-5)Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Wool Omnibus is a collection of 5 novellas, which makes a broad summary difficult. In very general terms, the collection is about people in a post-apocalyptic world who live in a huge underground silo and struggle with secrets from the past.

I really wanted to love this book. Wool is exploding everywhere right now, and Hugh Howey is the defining self-published success story. In fact, if I were writing a review just for the first novella in the book (the eponymous Wool, renamed Holston in the collection), it would have handily earned 4 stars, teetering on the edge of five.

Unfortunately, perhaps because of the way it was written, the tightly woven story with elaborate detail in the first book did not carry through. The further along in the book, the more problems Howey had as a writer in keeping the form and overall concept going. The fifth and last story in the collection, The Stranded, had such big weird mistakes that I would have given it two stars.
I’ve tried to keep the exciting and compelling spoilers out–for the most part, I’m not giving any huge secrets away. But if you don’t want any spoilers at all–you’ve been warned!

There will be spoilers from here out, so if you are still interested in seeing what Howey has created, you’ve reached the end of the road.

First, a quick breakdown of each story:
Wool/Holston: The story of a man, the sheriff of an underground post-apocalyptic silo, whose wife discovered an amazing secret: they’d been lied to. She was sent outside, and Holston is left wondering if she is alive–as she promised–or dead. Either way, he is compelled to join her.
Proper Gauge: With the Sheriff gone, Mayor Jahns needs to find a replacement. She and Deputy Marnes set off to the deepest parts of the silo to recruit their choice, discovering parts of the silo long-forgotten and reawakening old feelings. They face unexpected opposition along the way.
Casting Off: Jules is a mechanic, but she’s promised to take the role of sheriff. She’s on the job no more than a few days before she discovers problems she can’t easily fix, and the secret-keepers decide she shouldn’t be around to find solutions.
The Unraveling: Jules survived the unsurvivable, against all odds, but now she has to figure out what to do next when everything she knows is gone. Meanwhile, her friends, furious at her unfair departure, take up arms.
The Stranded: Jules declares war on the enemies that sent her here. With the help of someone who shouldn’t exist, she uses her wits to return to her silo and try to put things right.

I really enjoyed Wool/Holston. I thought it was tightly written, a unique concept, great detail, and a lot of expressiveness. It took me a little while to find the rhythm for Proper Gauge, but by the end, I really liked that, too.

But then came Casting Off, and it got a little weird. Inexplicably, Howey starts the story with a recounting of Juliette’s attendance of “Romeo & Juliette” as a small child. It’s a nice little aside, but I never understood what that was supposed to tell us…except perhaps it provided an excuse for Howey to start each section of this story with a quote from the play. Why? I don’t know. The quotes made sense in context, but they felt like a crutch, and I think the story would have been just as good (better?) without them.

I have fundamental problems with The Unraveling. I’m supposed to believe that these people who have only seen one gun, a small handgun, know “instinctively” how to make guns that will fire? I can excuse the bombs, because that’s something that the mechanics/miners might have used, but the sudden ability to mass-produce guns and bullets seemed completely absurd, as did the assumption that no one would even bother to TALK to anyone before jumping right to the revolution phase. The silo was ripe for revolution, but the way it was executed seemed incredibly implausible.

And then The Stranded. Whoo-boy. The story parts of Stranded were solid. Howey is excellent at the detailed, one-person experience. Which is what made the story errors that much more shocking to me. So this silo has been devoid of human life for somewhere more than 30 years (I think he said 34, but I can’t remember exactly and it’s tough to flip through my kindle to find it). And yet soup left out is still liquid (must be amazing soup; if I leave it out for a day it gets scummy; I can’t imagine it would be solid after years); bodies have not decayed completely away (someone needs to watch more CSI or Bones); and, worst of all, there are somehow children between the ages of 5 and 16?! (WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?! They were -15 to -25 when the revolution supposedly happened there!)

It made for a good story, but it completely ruined it for me. It just didn’t make sense. Howey seemed to have written it in such a rush (and without the aid of a traditional editor) that he couldn’t keep his own timeline straight.

More minor problems included some latent sexism, which was disappointing. In a world where women are mechanics and farmers and mayors and computer geniuses, their husbands are still telling them to go home and get out of the fighting? Yawn. Come on, this is supposed to be a different world. The sudden and out-of-nowhere protectionism was jarring and a bit hard to swallow.

Along the same lines, the relationships got a bit predictable after the second story. Oh, someone is friendly with someone else? They must be deeply in tragic, romantic love. It’s like no one in this world has any friendships (ok. There are two friendships that I noticed, but they are background and the characters don’t do much). The only motivation anyone can ever have is grounded in romantic love? Seriously?

I must say, though, that the story is very inventive overall, and Howey has written a good series. Howey created a pretty well-thought-out world, and the mechanics and psychology of the setting mostly make a lot of sense.

I do think it was rushed, and maybe could have used a little further development, and, unfortunately, I don’t think it deserves the 5-star headliner praise it’s been given. But it’s still a worthy read, and anything that gets more dystopias on the map is a good thing, in my opinion.

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