Let me just start by saying that if this wasn’t written by Dan Wells I likely would never have picked it up. The cover is possibly the least interesting book cover I have ever seen. Luckily, I was able to get past that.
I feel like there are certain things that Dan Wells does really well and things that he is only mediocre at. His settings never feel fully realized. It’s almost like the places he describes are only partially there, like the distance is shrouded in that mistiness that video game designers use when your computer doesn’t have enough memory to show the horizon. When he is describing real cities like in much of this book the setting feels like a place that he drove through or visited once, or even worse looked up on a map.
With that out of the way I can talk about what Dan Wells is good at. He is good at atmosphere, terror and mystery.
Fragments picks up where Partials left off with a world broken by disease and war. Kira is trying desperately to find a cure that will save the human race from the disease that is slowly killing them and hopes to discover the secrets to her own past at the same time.
Kira is no different from most teenage literary protagonists in that she wants to figure out where she fits what she is and why she is there. These are universal questions which is part of the reason they are used in young adult fiction so much.
Dan Wells channels the atmosphere of desolation and destruction remarkably well. The world feels like our world after it has been rapidly depopulated. The part of me that loves ghost towns longs to look into this world, to explore the ruins of our civilization. The emptiness and the danger are real but I couldn’t help but wonder if the fortuitous use of canned food in this society twelve years after the apocalypse is realistic. How many cans of tuna re still good twelve years later? Probably a surprising number but it made me wonder every time they stopped and ate some tuna — also carrying cans across the desolated midwest sounds like a very bad idea. The degradation of gasoline over time is treated realistically but the characters are still able to find rope in hardware stores and long abandoned computers start working as soon as they are supplied power.
I’m not even sure how realistic that is. I have computers that I have put away in storage and fired them up and they work great six or seven years later. Theoretically, if nothing happens to them, then they should still work. I also know that modern data farms go through an unseemly number of hard drives every day due to mechanical failure. They are constantly building in redundancies and swapping out parts because when you have a million processors and hundreds of thousands of hard drives, chances are one of them is going bad right now. I feel dubious that turning on power to a data farm twelve years after it died that the entire things would work without some kind of maintenance. (Almost all the uses of technology in this book are problematic, unrealistic and sometimes jarringly misunderstood but I’m trying to get past that.)
That’s probably the least unrealistic part of the book because Kira and company traverse most of the breadth of the continent on horses in a barren wasteland with no food or water and the only rain falls as acid that burns and scorches the skin and poisons and kills everything. The midwest United States is not populated enough to find shelter every day, it just isn’t. I’m not even convinced you would want to do it with a car under those circumstances.
Leaving aside the fairly naive discussions of computers and networking usage, and the impossibleness of the journey Dan Wells is great at telling a story that is equal parts fascinating and terrifying. Some of the action scenes and moments of tension are the best I’ve seen in quite some time.
That’s because these are the areas in which Dan Wells excels. Atmosphere, terror and mystery. The mystery in the book is intriguing, if a little bit of a letdown upon discovery, and drives almost all of the plot. The terror both long term and short term feel real and powerful. This is a delicate act to pull off. Dan Wells expertly builds a world that is so completely broken that even living in it is terrifying — the future is bleak, possibly nonexistent — and the he fills in the moments with bits of real tension and fantastical action set pieces.
I’ve begun to feel that Dan Wells hasn’t improved as much in his skills over the course of his novels as I would have expected. Many of his weaknesses still remain. I find with each novel my desire to read the next one decreases just a little. Here’s hoping I like the next one more.