Self Published (2011)
YA / Post-Apocalypse
I’m conflicted yet again in my attempts to write a review. Had I written this review last night after finishing Annie Oldham’s The Burn, it would have been mostly excited cheerfulness with some lamentation about the emptiness I felt at the ending. Now that I’ve had a couple of hours to contemplate the book, I feel let down and find that it was a bit hollow yet I enjoyed it for what it was. As long as I can think of it as a series of scenes without a much larger, overarching plot, I find that I enjoyed it though it felt incomplete.
The Burn follows Terra, a 16-year-old girl born and raised in an underwater colony somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. An atomic war a hundred years prior had destroyed the land and left it in ruins. Terra is told by her father that it’s now a land of roving gangs, violence, anarchy and destruction, often referred to as the Burn, yet she’s drawn to it after years of feeling oppressed by the dark waters that surround her home. Through some sneaky maneuvering and the help of a strange woman, Terra takes a submarine to the Burn, where she finds that some of the horrible things her father had told her were true. She finds a colony of survivors and quickly falls into their ranks. A couple of key scenes occur to prove that living on the Burn is a constant nightmare and Terra is left to decide whether to stay or return to her underwater colony.
I can’t fathom living a life never having seen the sun. Being claustrophobic, I instantly felt for Terra and believed in her feelings of desperation for a life not dictated by the strict constraints of her underwater home. Oldham does a great job with atmosphere. Her descriptions of the underwater colony as well as the decimated remains of Seattle easily transported me to these awful places. I could see the broken highway cluttered with abandoned cars and the shuttered up school building used by the survivors. There were incredible amounts of tension in some of the scenes, particularly whenever the survivors were faced with adversaries from the outside.
Though it was written in first person, I still felt like I was there in those moments and had to continue reading. It was the in between where things began to lag and became more of lingering chapters of very basic character development, though none of the characters really grew or changed between when they were introduced to the time the book ended. Of course this is the beginning of a series, so there’s always things held back for the sequels, but I often felt as though I was reading a hodgepodge of mundane moments in Terra’s new life and not as though there was a larger story being told.
There’s a minor spoiler that affects Terra as a character and many of the plot elements ahead.
Terra has to pay a price for assistance to the mainland by a strange underwater recluse lady. This price is her tongue so that she can’t ever speak about the colony to anyone she might meet topside. Despite the gruesome scene of amputation and the resulting difficulties with communication, I didn’t quite understand the woman’s logic. Just because Terra can’t speak doesn’t mean she can’t still communicate. Perhaps she believed that no survivors would be able to read, but they were mistaken and Terra could have easily written her story down for them. This sacrifice just didn’t feel as though it had been thought through all the way and was set up as just another obstacle in Terra’s path to land.
The two main male characters – Dave and Jack – were pretty interchangeable until about two thirds in. To be completely honest, after putting the book down and going to work for nine hours, I had completely switched the characters with their names when I picked it back up not even twenty-four hours later. Dave is the pseudo-romantic lead and is the leader of the entire group of survivors despite only being 18 years old. Men much older and more experienced come to him for decisions about important life-and-death situations. It didn’t really feel right to me. Other than this role of leadership, he was kind and mostly an overgrown boy scout that Terra has a puppy crush on. Once Jack became more fleshed out, he became my favorite character and I wish he had more to do, though the end leads me to believe he will have much more of a presence in the sequel.
But mostly there wasn’t a big plot. It didn’t really feel like a coming-of-age story because Terra didn’t change that much; she was far less naïve by the end, but she was still incredibly sensitive and a bit on the selfish side. It wasn’t really an epic journey because, outside of a chapter long submarine ride, she stayed in one general location. It didn’t even feel like much of a post-apocalyptic story outside a few tense scenes (which were the highlights of the book to me). Mostly the plot consisted of two things: Terra reaching the Burn and then her attempt to hide her origin while fitting in with the survivors. There was no big bad or catalyst to the things that happened, just everyday life and that tends to move slowly.
Despite all my complaints, I did enjoy reading The Burn and found myself wishing to be reading it in moments when I wasn’t. It was one of the best written self-published books I've received. I just wish there had been more to it, so that it held up better in retrospect. I’m very intrigued by where Annie Oldham will take these characters in the sequel.
Not a lot of plotting, but great moments of suspense and atmospheric descriptions; little character development, but characters who are mostly enjoyable to spend time with
I received an electronic copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review.