[Second Novel In A Series Alert! Review of the first book is here]
Sequels are exceptionally tricky affairs to balance. If you stray too far afield from what came before, then you risk alienating the audience you built with the original. If you hew too closely, then you’re bringing nothing new to the table. But as difficult as following up a story can be, fleshing out what came before is an even more difficult tightrope to walk. In order to write a proper prequel, you have to work off of whatever assumptions and breadcrumbs have already risen to the surface based on what exists in the prior work. If you’ve already managed to flesh out everything that the audience needs to know from the past in the initial story, then you’re only coloring inside lines that were already visible from the outset. If you use the wrong crayons, you can make the finished picture look like a mess.
Luckily, Hugh Howey left enough room in the story of just what happened before Wool that it expands effortlessly to fill in the void. First Shift gives exactly what you wanted to know based on the tantalizing hints and whispers dropped throughout the five Wool novellas: exactly how did we get to where we are in Wool, and what’s going on in Silo 1? In fact, First Shift does exactly these two things, alternating the tale back and forth between the days and weeks and months that lead up to Wool’s world and the first shift of workers who operate Silo 1, and from it, every other silo. In the past we meet Donald, one of the architects of the entire silo initiative who is being swept along by forces beyond his control but never does much of anything to try to plant his feet into the ground and make a stand. In the present we meet Troy, waking up from a long sleep to do a job he doesn’t understand why he’s qualified for. Both stories work on themes of impostor syndrome with a deft touch and a strong vision for what began the tale that unfolded in Wool, and First Shift is written so confidently that it’s easy to recommend the omnibus on the strength of it alone.
Unfortunately, Second Shift marginally and Third Shift in particular spend far too much time shading the colors that have already been laid down. I had the damnedest time getting into Second Shift thanks almost entirely to Mission, our new half-protagonist sharing the spotlight with Troy waking up from another long sleep for his second shift in Silo 1. While Troy’s continuing story becomes the heart and soul of the collected Shift novellas, Mission’s tale feels a bit like a body just going through the motions. While not having any direct parallels with Holston or Juliette or any of the other characters we came to love in Silo 18, his role feels like it is there to spackle in gaps that didn’t necessarily need to be filled in. Mission’s story does pick up as it moves forward and has some wonderful connections to keep his and Troy’s stories from coming apart from one another, the Crow in particular being the standout character of Second Shift, but great parts of the story feel as though Hugh simply wanted an excuse to flesh out more of the levels of Silo 18. Here we get a better look at the farms and at Dispatch and the life of a porter, where in Wool we focused so much on the sheriff’s office, mechanical, and IT, and with the world building being such a strong component of the Wool series it’s hard to dismiss Mission’s story as merely being fill-in-the-blanks. But until the actual point of Second Shift hits with a bang, it was my greatest obstacle to finishing the omnibus.
Which makes me glad that getting through it left the rest of the trip downhill, or else Third Shift may have simply stopped my momentum entirely. The first protagonist of Third Shift is once again Troy, waking up for the third time in Silo 1 to continue the mysteries and trials that constitute watching over the remaining survivors of humanity with occasional detours into overwrought, puppy-nose-rubbing realizations. The second protagonist is Solo, a memorable if nearly over the top character from Wool, and it’s in Third Shift that Wool and Shift find their timelines meeting up. While First Shift and Second Shift are decidedly prequels, Third Shift is more of a companion novel happening in parallel with the events of the last Wool novellas until they end up at more or less the same place to set the stage for the final story. The things that happen to Troy in Third Shift are understandable and relatable from the character’s perspective, yet engage in some of my least favorite narrative tropes while becoming audaciously heavy handed in other spots, leading to a mixed finale for the character that gives the entire novella trilogy its spine. Meanwhile, Solo commits a far more grave sin. Solo is boring. There are few revelations to be had as to what actually happened in Silo 17, and fewer still about what it must have been like to live for 30 years on one’s own. The madness is never quite mad enough, the struggle never hard enough, the triumphs never high enough. Solo’s story is a flat slog to reach a destination we’re already aware of, the greatest danger of writing a prequel realized. Were it not for a memorable turn by Shadow, a cat that Solo befriends at one point in his story, there would be scarcely any signs of life in this sixth of the omnibus at all. At a time when the story should be building to a crescendo to excite you into leaping directly into Dust, Hugh Howey instead noodles around with notes we’ve already heard for far too long.
Solo’s story in Third Shift isn’t enough to kill my recommendation for the Shift omnibus as a whole. Troy’s story remains interesting and engaging from beginning to end, even when I didn’t personally care for a few of the narrative choices used. While we learn about the past before Wool in First Shift, it’s Troy’s tale that expands the broad present reality to fill in more answers and realities that went unspoken of in Wool. Mission’s story didn’t grab me at first, but it blooms into something worthwhile with just a little effort. And in all corners, Hugh Howey continues to paint a world that is so well-thought out that imagining the way a rusted stairway or a broken, chipped wall looks after decades of disrepair is utterly effortless. He set himself at an incredibly difficult task, filling in the past of the world, of Silo 1, of Silo 18, and for the most part he stuck the landing. If he stumbled and pinwheeled a bit to keep his balance, he never actually managed to topple over. I’m excited to read Dust soon and see exactly where these eight novellas have been leading, but after reading Shift, my worry becomes that some parts of this omnibus in particular will feel superfluous and easily discarded in the larger context of the complete story. I compared Wool to a season of television in my first review and I feel the comparison holds up just as strongly here, taking us through six “episodes” leading up to the big finale. Solo’s story might simply be a standalone fluke tossed off for budgetary and timing reasons, or it might be more important than I realize now. Stay tuned.