Earlier this year, Hugh Howey pulled out all the stops with his adrenaline-fuelled post-apocalyptic actioner Sand. Shortly after, he announced that his next book would be a more subtle affair with a more “romantic” feel. Oh how we all laughed!
He wasn’t kidding.
This time around, Howey’s taking things a little easier on the world but it’s still not a good place to be. In the near future, probably sooner than we hope, global warming has led to rising sea levels and the oceans have become so polluted that very little now survives there. As a result, something as simple as a shell has become a valuable collector’s item due to their ever-growing scarcity. They are collected and traded around the world for vast sums of money.
Journalist Maya Walsh is investigating the oil magnates who she blames for much of this pollution and is working on a story concerning millionaire Ness Wilde. When approached by the F.B.I. and shown what seem to be fake shells, she intensifies her investigation and agrees to meet and stay with Wilde at his plush home, posing as an interviewer in order to find out the truth.
Thankfully Howey has wisely taken a more subtle approach to this story. It would have been very easy to mess this one up. While many of Howey’s protagonists so far have been female, this time he does so in the first person. Writing as he is from the point of view of Ms. Walsh, there should be something inherently creepy about a middle-aged man writing as a young woman but because he does so both respectfully and tastefully it works much better than expected. (If you’re expecting Fifty Shades Of Wool, think again.) The story is less complex and slowly paced than Wool or Sand but its underlying themes are both important and compelling as the narrative unfolds, and as her relationship with Ness develops, Maya discovers more than she had bargained for.
The world of The Shell Collector is a much different one than its predecessors. It’s a much more plausible and functional environment than we’re used to from Howey. Technology is more prevalent and many of the creature comforts are still present for those who can afford them. It’s a celebration of the tenacity of nature and also a love-letter to the sea, as the author draws on his own experiences as a yacht captain to give a more authentic feel to proceedings.
It’s always a huge risk for any established author to change style so drastically, especially in sci-fi where romance often takes a back seat and attempts at intimacy tend to be plot devices rather than genuine studies of character’s relationships. For the most part it works, however it’s inevitable that some fans of Howey’s earlier work will not appreciate this new approach to the genre, but his independence as a self-published author gives him the freedom to write whatever the hell he wants. This could be viewed by some as a clever ploy to win over the huge audience for romance novels, or just as someone enjoying their creative freedom who is willing to break the barriers between genres and try something a little different. I’d like to think it’s the latter.
4 out of 5 Nerds