Book Review: The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones
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: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Dystopian, Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (September 5, 2017)
Length: 400 pages
It’s a year for pleasant surprises, it seems. The Salt Line is a book that first caught my eye because of its thriller-dystopian premise, but it’s more than just that; author Holly Goddard Jones has created an exciting high-drama experience, the kind that would not go amiss in a Crichton novel, but her story also contains a high level of literary quality that challenges most genre labels.
Taking place in the not-so-distant future, The Salt Line features a world defeated by an enemy smaller than the size of a pea. The United States has even ceded most of its natural territories to this tiny terror, a tick that serves a as a vector to a deadly pathogen. Getting bit by one of these things is scary enough—their life cycle and what it does to the human body is like something straight out of an Alien movie—but the true killer is in fact Shreve’s disease, carried by a large percent of these ticks. For this reason, most people now live in safe zones in which these pests have been eradicated. These enclosed areas are separated from the wilderness, which is where the ticks thrive, by a physical wall as well as a burnt-out dead zone called the Salt Line, a large swath of land that has been purged of all life by fire and chemicals designed to keep the ticks at bay.
Still, there are people who live beyond the Salt Line—some by choice, others by necessity. Then there are the thrill-seekers who pay big money for their chance to go out there, to have a grand adventure to see what’s left of nature. Our story begins with such a group, receiving their first orientation from the tour company that’s being paid to bring them outside the quarantine zone. Those among the expedition include Edie, a former bartender in her 20s who somehow ended being roped into this dangerous excursion by Jesse, her reckless popstar boyfriend. Then there’s Marta, who may seem like just a simple housewife, except she is actually married to a notorious robber baron whose illicit activities she has endured for years because of her love for her children. And of course there’s also Wes, a young billionaire tech prodigy who founded Pocketz, the financial app that has taken the world by storm.
Most of the people on this tour are there because of what the company brochure promised—a chance to experience the untouched beauty of nature. For some, being able to witness sparkling waterfalls and sunrises without the filter of pollution is worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the risk of death from a tick bite. But for those mentioned, they have other reasons for wanting to take this trip. And when the expedition is waylaid by a group of rebels and held captive in an outer-zone commune called Ruby City, those secrets begin to come to light, with dire consequences for their chances of returning home.
The unofficial tagline for this book should be The Salt Line: come for the creepy ticks, stay for outstanding characterization and the in-depth exploration of social themes. Those who want suspense and intrigue will get plenty, but there’s no doubt that the novel’s strength is in its rich, character-driven narrative and fantastically written cast. Our key players are all fleshed out with robust back stories, complete with their individual moral dilemmas, conflicting desires, and other very human concerns (I especially loved Marta and Wes). They also come from varied backgrounds, representing the different strata of this troubled society with its extreme socio-economical class divisions. The arrival of the deadly ticks has altered daily life at all levels, impacting issues related to the environment, healthcare, immigration, technology, and more. Though the price of safety and security is high, many appear willing to pay it even if it means being trapped in poor circumstances.
Still, despite its social commentary, I appreciated the way our story maintained its focus on adventure and suspense. Love them or hate them, the characters are at the heart of this novel, and the ambiguities behind their ambitions are the fuel that drives the plot, keeping things engaging. All this and more are presented in a seamless package containing a fine balance of horror, dystopian, and thriller elements.
Would I recommend The Salt Line for fans of dystopian fiction? Yes, but with an added proviso that this genre description merely scratches the book’s surface—a good thing, in my opinion. I got a lot more out of the story than I expected, and enjoyed spending every tense moment in this world with its multifaceted characters. I wouldn’t hesitate to read another novel by Holly Goddard Jones in the future.