Book Review: Wilders by Brenda Cooper
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Project Earth
Publisher: Pyr (June 13, 2017)
Length: 350 pages
Brenda Cooper is taking a new direction in her new book Wilders, switching from space operas to look at a world in a future where human expansion and environmental change has shaped the face of the planet in dramatic ways.
The story takes place in the Pacific Northwest, in the megacity of Seacouver. Established after the merging of Seattle and Vancouver, the place is a shining example of progress and modernity: every citizen is connected to a greater network that takes care of their every need. And yet, not everyone is happy in this high-tech environment where everything is clean, controlled, and carefully ordered. Our protagonist is Coryn Williams, who loves living in Seacouver, but the same cannot be said for the rest of her family. Unable to take the pressures of the city anymore, her parents commit suicide, leaving behind Coryn and her older sister Lou.
Lou, however, is also miserable in Seacouver. At eighteen, she has reached the age where she can choose an occupation after graduating high school, but instead, she decides to leave to work in the wild lands, the unincorporated zones outside the city limits. Coryn is still fifteen, so she is left behind to finish her studies, with only her robot Paula for companionship. For the next three years, she receives regular updates from Lou, who writes about her idyllic life as a ranger working to restore the devastated ecosystem for a non-government organization. Charmed by these wonderful accounts of the wild beyond, when Coryn turns eighteen she also decides to leave the safety of the city with Paula to go reunite with Lou, only to discover that her sister might not have been entirely truthful with her descriptions.
I knew from some of the common themes in Cooper’s previous books that she was very passionate about environmental issues, and she’s brought them to the forefront here in Wilders, a story that speculates how humanity would live after the planet has gone through ecological degradation. Thus, it was with no surprise when I found that the messages in this novel—well-intentioned as they are— were delivered with the approximate delicacy of an orbital strike. That said, the narrative is completely upfront with this, as early as the prologue, so I have to give credit where credit is due. Even before the story started in earnest, I knew exactly what I was going to be in for, and because of that, I was able to overlook most of its weaknesses resulting from the author’s not-so-subtle messages, though admittedly it was a struggle sometimes.
One area I thought the book excelled in was character development. Coryn was a great protagonist, and I thought the story captured her personality and thought processes very well. Having grown up in the city with an appreciation for it not shared by her sister or most of the other characters in this novel, she also gave us a unique point of view. And while it may be true that she’s a city girl needing to overcome her naïve ways to learn about survival in the wild lands, it surprised me how frequently she ended up being the voice of reason. When Lou goes overboard in her romanticizing of nature, for example, or when the Wilders put down the life in the city unfairly, Coryn is often there to slap the truth and reality back into picture. Despite being childishly foolish and having her priorities confused at times, I thought Coryn was an independent and determined character, and as an outsider among the lawlessness of the wildlands, she did a good job holding her own.
In terms of criticisms though, I felt there was an overall “sparseness” to the world of Wilders that prevented the concept of the megacity and its surrounding wilderness from being fully realized. With Coryn being an exception, all of the others characters were painted in very broad strokes and given overly simplistic explanations for their motivations and actions. Furthermore, serious topics like suicide were diminished, such as when no other reason is given for Coryn’s parents’ suicides beyond simply that “they hated the city”, and most of what life is like in Seacouver was told to us instead of shown. There also seemed to be an “all or nothing” division to it, i.e. people in the city either suffered or thrived with no in between. At first I thought there might have been an underlying reason for this that author would reveal in due course, but nope. The Wilders also had a similar weird dichotomy in their attitudes, i.e. if you’re not on their side, then you’re an animal-murdering, planet-hating, city-slicking dirtbag.
For all the book’s flaws though, the story was entertaining, with frequent bursts of action to drive the pacing. Wilders won’t be for everyone, but some parts did work for me, especially some of the more intriguing ideas about futuristic smart cities and ecological reconstruction. I also have a good feeling that any weak points will be beefed up in the sequel, so for now consider me interested and optimistic about the next book of the Project Earth duology.