Review: “Rootless” by Chris Howard


Title: “Rootless”

Author: Chris Howard

Genre: YA, post-apocalyptic/dystopian, techno-western, social commentary

Publication Date: November 1, 2012 (Scholastic – North America)

Source: Author-provided ARC

Summary: 17-year-old Banyan is a tree builder. Using scrap metal and salvaged junk, he creates forests for rich patrons who seek a reprieve from the desolate landscape. Although Banyan’s never seen a real tree—they were destroyed more than a century ago—his father used to tell him stories about the Old World. But that was before his father was taken . . .

Everything changes when Banyan meets a woman with a strange tattoo—a clue to the whereabouts of the last living trees on earth, and he sets off across a wasteland from which few return. Those who make it past the pirates and poachers can’t escape the locusts—the locusts that now feed on human flesh.

But Banyan isn’t the only one looking for the trees, and he’s running out of time. Unsure of whom to trust, he’s forced to make an uneasy alliance with Alpha, an alluring, dangerous pirate with an agenda of her own. As they race towards a promised land that might only be a myth, Banyan makes shocking discoveries about his family, his past, and how far people will go to bring back the trees.

☆: 4.5/5 stars – a fantastic techno-western that YA definitely needs more of!

Review: Okay, so, can I just say how much I love the amount of futuristic semi-apocalyptic westerns that are coming out of YA right now? However, here’s one that hasn’t been done before, at least not without using space opera as an additional sub-genre – a techno-western. Yep. That’s right. And you know what? I totally got sucked in. Put on your seatbelt, folks. Not only do we have a techno-western, but it’s a current social commentary-based one. Love it when authors can pull that off without sounding preachy, and Howard does it here. This is one 2012 debut you don’t want to miss.

Where to start? The world. The world was so well-built, and believable, yet at the same time, it’s very sparsely written. It’s rich and detailed but written in a very compact way, not sprawling or overly flowery, and it all just works. It’s not under-furnished with information, nor is it totally over the top like it could have been. It’s just there. And it works. The only area I was a bit fuzzy on was the time (we’re given a benchmark – a century after the Darkness, when the last of paper/wood/etc kinda disappeared from the planet), but in terms of how far that is from now, we’re not given an answer. But since this book looks to be the first in what’s at least a duology, I feel like I can allow this when it usually drive me mad. The rest of the world is so complete that the sense of time just isn’t a factor bothering me this time, which is always an awesome thing.

While I was excited to keep the pages flipping, I also found myself caring very deeply for these characters and this world that seemed so fragile yet like Banyan and his metal trees, very strong. All of the characters, even antagonists, are surprisingly sympathetic. We also get a lot of racial/ethnic/cultural diversity, which was so amazingly nice to see (it feels like we don’t have a lot of that in YA right now aside from the contemporary, but even there, it’s still a bit on the thin side). We get Zee and her mother, Banyan, the Rasta Soljahs, and so forth. It was a nice little rainbow of diversity all around, and I love how all of these cultures clashed in this slowly-dying world. We get the rich and the poor (but mostly the very poor), the evil Big Pharma/Con-Agra business, pirates and poachers and slavers, and everyone who falls in between in a huge spectrum. There is no (moral) black and white in this world, as we learn by the end of the book, though it is very tempting to throw the antagonist and the protagonists on either side of the black/white set of scales. There’s a lot of murky gray, and that’s where I feel like Howard gives us one of the biggest messages of the book in terms of Banyan’s solo character development/journey arc – about growing up. When you grow up (or are forced to), there’s a lot more gray than everyone tells you about. And making choices suddenly gets harder in that gray haze because rarely are answers that easy or quick.

But some of my favorite bits of this book all have one thing in common – Howard’s fantastic use of sensory imagery and language. The Banyan-built trees, the real trees, the tattoo on Hina, the shanty towns around futuristic Vegas (called Vega all these years later) – all of that felt real. The sound of the man-eating locusts was pretty terrifying and yeah, I actually did jump a bit whenever they were in action. The waterfalls of the Soljah camps at Niagara Falls. Banyan’s wagon and all the things within it. All of it made for some pretty unforgettable images. There’s a lot of cyberpunk and biopunk at work in this book, so you still retain that techno-western feeling (think “Cowboy Bebop” without the bounty hunting or space ships, but with a kid and his dad doing various jobs much like Spike and the Bebop crew in order to keep their bellies full) without sacrificing too much else to these other sub-genres.

And the last: the social commentary bit of the book. Howard doesn’t get preachy, but the warning is pretty dire (and considering where we are in our current culture where we actually had to call out Walmart and Monsanto on putting GMO’d fruits and veggies in their markets, we could use that warning) – under the tyrant foot of not just governments, but companies, do we have severe poverty and all the ugliness that comes with it. There is no government in this book but that of GenTech – you live and die by their will. It’s pretty sinister, and it’s definitely a wake up call – especially when it’s revealed that GenTech hasn’t just dabbled in splicing for making corn. I won’t say another word on that because it’d be a huge spoiler, but for the older readers, two words: soylent green. If we were to have a future without a government and instead a tyrant company, well, I sure as hell would not want to live in it. So I guess Howard’s message is more like “uh, guys, we should probably start watching these Big Pharma/Con-Agra-types when they’re messing with our food supply”. Or something to that effect. And we’re not bludgeoned over the head with it.
Final verdict? If you’re into cyberpunk, dystopia, biopunk or just plain ol’ sci-fi, this is the book for you. And if you’re just dipping your toes into the sub-genre pools, this is a great starter book. Just read it, okay? “Rootless” is out now through Scholastic in North America, and its place on my best of 2012 list is well-deserved. Be sure to check it out when you get the chance!

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3 thoughts on “Review: “Rootless” by Chris Howard

  1. Pingback: usagi’s challenges for 2012! | birth of a new witch.

  2. Pingback: Stacking the Shelves: Week 26 | birth of a new witch.

  3. Pingback: Full STEAM Ahead with Chris Howard « The Reading Zone

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