REVIEW: WHISPERS OF THE WORLD THAT WAS
I've already introduced this book in at least one or two previous posts so I will keep the first two sections relatively brief. Basically, I entered a whole bunch of Goodreads Giveaways for various science fiction and fantasy novels and actually won the drawing for E.S. Wynn's WHISPERS OF A WORLD THAT WAS. I entered the drawing because 1) The cover was pretty tight and 2) the synopsis kind of made this sound like MAD MAX meets Lovecraftian monsters. I was certainly a bit sketchy on the details and did note that this belongs to something called the Wraeththu Mythos, but had no idea what that meant and since this is a standalone title, I decided to give it a shot.
HOW I CAME UPON IT
Like I said, I won the Giveaway and within about a week, this showed up in the mail. Being that this is the first thing I have ever won off of Goodreads, I was definitely pretty excited and decided to dive right in.
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 This is going to be a somewhat hypocritical rating because as a general rule, I hated this world and was really weirded out by the concept in general. While I will get into that in just a little bit, the primary reason I give this such a high rating is because despite how uncomfortable and disturbed I was throughout the two hundred something pages is simply the fact that I had a hard time putting this book down. The author somehow manages to make this totally alien setting feel relateable (sort of), delivers a cast of compelling characters, and provides a narrative that is exceptionally well paced. Not to mention that this is a piece brimming with dramatic moments that feel satisfyingly cinematic.
I've done a similar category to this one in the past, but I believe that was for an eBook. This work was read in print and while I don't normally pay a whole lot of attention to the construction of a book, this one is particularly well done. It sports what is known as a "soft touch" cover which looks like matte if you just sit it on a table and look at it, but once you pick it up, you will notice that it actually has this soft, almost rubbery feel to it. I thought this finish was really cool and it made the book feel really great to hold. What's more is the interior is exceptionally well done. The fonts look just right, the page size that was chosen felt appropriate, and the overall aesthetic of this piece really just stood out in a way that I feel like most books really don't. I don't mean to knock printed books, in fact they are my preference over eBooks, but since paper books take up space and cost more, I find myself being pickier and pickier about what I want to have a physical copy of versus what I'm content to just download to my Kindle app. This is the sort of book that is crafted well enough for you to really be missing out if you were to read it as an eBook, because the look and feel of the print edition is just so finely crafted.
Beyond book aesthetics, the other component to this work that is really well constructed is the cast of diverse characters. There are a vast plethora of colorful characters that readers will meet along the journey. There are fatherly mayor figures, rowdy scavengers, hippie farmers, and a great many more. The people in this book are survivors of an apocalyptic event which isn't particularly well explained, but I got enough to gather that it was some combination of war and disease (primarily disease) that led to the world's downfall. What's more is that these characters are all male...kind of.
The people that inhabit the story space aren't precisely human. They were once, but now they are a new species called hara. What is strikingly different about a hara is that they're not really male at all. Through a rather mortifying transfusion of blood, the humans that become hara loose their sex. Instead of male privates, they wind up with something else - something neutral which can change into the male or female part on a whim. This creates a real conundrum for these guys because mentally, they still associate themselves as guys, because before this transformation, they were indeed men - most of which were straight men. Dealing with their rather alien sexuality and their inexplicable attraction to each other is a major source of internal conflict for these characters that ultimately makes them feel a bit more relateable since they openly acknowledge that their current state feels uncomfortable and even unnatural. A good portion of the story's plot and surprises revolve around the nature of this species, so I won't really go too much farther into WHAT these people are since there are things about their evolution that are slowly unveiled as the story proceeds.
The main character is named Tyse and we read the story through his perspective. His best friend Stoff, is a "man" who makes him feel like he did in the old days. He thinks of Stoff as a pal, a buddy, but they have a hara sort of attraction to each other that threatens to dissolve the only connection Tyse has to his past life. The story spends a lot of time on their relationship with one another. While that wasn't really anything I was into, it's also something that I will hold off on discussing until the section of this review. At the end of the day, I still felt myself routing for both of them to survive the events of this book especially since the author so freely kills off important characters without much warning.
Tyse and Stoff live in a world that is as lethal as it is strange. In true post-apocalyptic fashion, no one is safe wandering the world alone and each day is a constant struggle to protect oneself against the predators that come in a variety of forms - human, hara, animal, and others. The true world of the mythos is much bigger than what we as readers get in this book. The setting of this particular adventure is really just E.S. Wynn's corner and while the stage is set well enough, I have already admitted that this aspect is my least favorite part so let me defend that position.
A number of authors have contributed to this mythos, but Storm Constantine is the primary author and inventor of this fiction. He writes a sort of beginners guide to the general concept which I found to be incredibly helpful to have at the start of the novel. Within this introduction, the creator defends himself on several points with a good deal of fervor. This first is that this is not really a story about homosexuality or bisexuality, but more of a hermaphrodite situation. That's kind of true, but it's also kind of not, given the nature of what hara actually are. He also defended against claims of sexism in that males seem to be the only real survivors of the cataclysmic pandemic that changes the world as we know it. While I definitely get that the interpersonal problems coming from being a hara would be severely lessened if the masculine hara could be with feminine hara, I'd definitely have to agree that it seems very unlikely that women would die off and men would live since our physiology isn't so different that one gender would be able to survive something that another could not. I am also admittedly in the camp of feeling like this is a world that is a tad sexist both in the way that characters view women and the way that they are biologically incapable of surviving the disease. Constantine does mention that there are female hara-ish people that appear at some point, but don't expect to see any of them here.
I certainly appreciate the idea of creating a sort of supernatural, science fiction horror world that no one has ever thought of before, but there is definitely a threshold for just how weird a writer can make something and expect that people will actually enjoy it. For me, this world extends well beyond that threshold. The creator's introduction did make mention of this mythos having a very faithful following, but I don't personally know of anyone that I would be able to recommend this world to. I think the bizarre sexuality is just too heavily focused on for most to find it an enjoyable situation. It certainly wouldn't appeal to heterosexual readers like myself since the characters are all have mannish exteriors, and I'm not even so sure the homosexual crowd would be into it since it's not really gay sex. There are also quite a few slurs toward gay men in the first half of the book when the two characters are still struggling with their new nature. It kind of boils down to this really uncomfortable alien intimacy where two dude-like people go at it with their mighty morphing private parts. Yes there is genuine romance that comes into play and a relationship that grows, but the sexual overtones are what really dominate the space of the relationship. I really just think this aspect is going to be too offensive to too many different crowds for this to be a truly enjoyable read for most.
There are also a lot of vaguely spiritual, new age ideas thrown around. While I know there's definitely an audience for that sort of thing, my main problem with it (aside from my not being within that audience) is that the pseudo religious aspects are never really explained in a way that felt satisfying, at least not in this particular story. I never quite got the spiritual transformation from hara to har that Constantine mentions nor did I really get the point or message there. Toward the end, I finally did understand why the transformation from human to hara had evolutionary value and this revelation did help explain SOME of the spiritual components, but it never really answered the question of WHY. Was this whole world just contrived to offer something different for the sake of being different? Or is there something in Constantine's vision that I'm not getting? Is this a forum to confront sexual insecurity or uncertainty? Is it just a fantasy where women can be totally removed from the equation? While the story of Stoff and Tyse is wrapped up well, the my fundamental issues with the world itself absolutely still remained by the time I turned over the final page. And though I place a lot of blame on Constantine for the foundational problems of the mythos, Wynn cannot be entirely let off the hook since my one and only exposure to this world is through his book - his contribution to the myhtos.
While a lot of the plot points that involve the hara have already been discussed there was fortunately a lot more to the plot than just a story about two hara coming to terms with themselves. The underlying narrative and tone are both really well done and part of what made this a read that I stuck with. At it's core, the story is about surviving in a land that becomes increasingly unforgiving and tremendously hazardous. Wynn has an absolutely superb grasp over how to build up a dramatic sequence and squeeze the maximum amount of impact from each climactic moment. The story is as violent as it is sexual and the gore is some of the most grotesque I have ever found in a book. Wynn's writing is described as "gritty and uncompromising" as per the book's synopsis. While I initially thought that was just marketing white noise, it's actually the only summary of Wynn's style that I find appropriate. Unfortunately, a lot of the plot's impact relies heavily on the element of surprise so I can't go much deeper than this, but I will say that it is a rather compelling marriage of mysticism and science fiction.
Wynn's writing is ultimately the only thing that really got me through this book. It's starkly detailed, aggressive, and believable. It's a shame that I cannot say the same for the mythos itself. I also wish that I could have enjoyed the world a bit more since it was such an integral part of the plot yet just did not work for me. Don't get me wrong, the world of Wraeththu is definitely a trip like no other, but it's not something I will ever be revisiting. I'm very impressed that Wynn was able to make me care so much about the world and its people even if I didn't care for them on a fundamental level. I think it's a testament to good writing, but I do hope that he has work that lies outside of the Wraeththu Mythos, preferably something a little more palatable for a larger portion of the population - if so I'll probably give that a shot. If you're already a fan of the mythos then this novel is an easy recommendation. I'm sure any current fans who read this review will be scoffing at how taken back by the sexual aspects I was since this is what marks the Wratheau continuity, but I think it's entirely fair to say that A LOT of people just aren't going to be that into it for one reason or another. This is probably going to be the only 4/5 rating I ever give where I just wouldn't recommend this to anyone I know. There is apparently a group that finds this sort of thing appealing and if you are among them, then you will be right at home. If you're like me and have never heard of this mythos before now, then I'm really not sure whether or not you'll like this. I have a feeling the ratings for this book are going to be all over the map and the only thing I can really promise is that Wynn truly is a fantastic writer even in a less than fantastic story space.
WHISPERS OF A WORLD THAT WAS is available in paperback and eBook editions on Amazon.