For those seeking non-stop action and little else, Flashfall, by Jenny Moyer, offers up a solid if somewhat predictable entry in the Strong Nervy Young Female Fights Oppression but not Love genre (trademark pending on SNYFFOL). But those who desire depth of character and of worldbuilding will probably want to look elsewhere for those elements.
A century after a solar apocalypse, sixteen-year-old Orion is a “caver” who, with her partner Dram, mines the all-important cirium, “an element born of the flash curtain [that] can be milked and refined into the only effective shields we have against the band of radioactive electromagnetic particles the sun sent crashing through our atmosphere.” Like the other inhabitants of Outpost Five, she is also a Subpar, descendants of humans who survived the “flash” and are “adapted to the curtain’s fallout … in ways the Naturals aren’t.” The Naturals, whose genes remain pure and unaffected by the curtain’s radiation, live behind a cirium shield in the sealed-safe city of Alara, which is barred to the Subpars, though it has been a long-standing promise that any caver who mines 400g of cirium will be allowed in.
When Orion discovers a massive vein of cirium, she inadvertently sets off a series of events that lead to her resisting the “Congress of Humanity” (the group in charge of this society) and facing death (or worse) again and again in the mines of Outpost Five as well as in the even more dangerous “Cordons,” areas more fully exposed to the Flashfall and to the creatures it has mutated into monsters.
To start with the positive, as mentioned, the action is pretty break-neck from the beginning. One gets a sense right away of where we’re going with the opening lines: “Caves make good hiding places. But this close to the Flashfall, they also make the most likely places to die.” And Orion and Dram come pretty close pretty quickly. And then pretty close again, pretty quickly. And then again. And again. Moyer’s plotting therefore has a propulsive force to it that will carry especially younger readers through Flashfall eagerly and speedily. And Orion is certainly an engaging character whose determination will appeal to that same audience.
On the flip side of the break-neck action is, well, the break-neckedness of it. It’s all just a little too much too fast. Readers barely get a chance to breathe, which on the surface sounds “exciting,” but in reality those quiet moments in between big moments help emphasize those moments and prevents them from blurring one into the other. Books need a balance and that balance is lacking here. The other problem is that the frenetic pace of action leaves little time for characterization. And so while there are several deaths that occur, one reacts more intellectually than emotionally. We know we should feel sad because someone died, so we do. But because we haven’t spent much time with that person, don’t really know them at all, we don’t feel the death. Worse, they eventually become predictable and mechanical, appearing almost in clockwork time.
Similarly, there’s little time for world-building in Flashfall, and one really feels the lack of vivid detail that creates a full sense of place and world (though we do get that sort of sharp detail in the description of Dram’s abs or eyes). The reader is often left with a lot of unanswered questions about the world, the curtain, how the society works, etc. (the kinds that distract, not the kind that leave a pleasing sense of open-endedness). Some points didn’t make a lot of sense to me, some felt a bit hand-wavey, others felt too glossed over or worse, contradictory.
Other issues detract as well. Various elements beyond those aforementioned deaths are also a bit too predictable. Certainly it isn’t hard, for example, for a reader to figure out that the Congress isn’t telling the cavers everything (which makes it all the more implausible when Orion simply takes them at their word at a pivotal point late in the book after they’ve been revealed as utterly untrustworthy). Other events are less predictable but more contrived.
What Flashfall left me with as an overall impression is that of a decent fourth or fifth draft of a novel. Moyer has the story she wants to tell down, and has the basic building blocks of that plot lined up smoothly from point A to B to C. She’s got a good sense of her main character and of the conflict. And a basic idea of the world it all takes place in. The raw clay has been dug and shaped into form.
But it’s still a rough form, unfinished. It hasn’t been glazed or fired or polished. In narrative language, Flashfall feels like it skipped those later drafts that provide the small telling details, the nuances of plot and character, the fine balance of quiet and chaos, the weeding out of contradiction and contrivance and cliché. That in short moves the creative object from “a neat story” to “a polished novel.” Here’s hoping the clearly-pointed-to sequel improves on its predecessor by making that journey.