One of the greatest pleasures I have in life is when, as a reader, I discover someone new who blows me away. It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does it is truly an exciting and exhilarating.
When I stumbled upon Tallwood I was intrigued. I love post apocalyptic fiction, and the blurb on the back of the back sounded like it would be something that I would enjoy. The added bonus was that Amanda Kool, its author, was a fellow Australian like me. So as I sat down that afternoon to start reading it questions floated into my head. Would the world collapse in a blaze of nuclear fire? Or would zombies rise up and destroy humanity and all that we hold dear? Little did I know that I was about to start a book that would not only surprise me, but also floor me with its imagination and creativity.
Tallwood tells the story of the end of the world. A mysterious event destroys humanity over a period of a fortnight, and the survivors flee underground. Over generations those survivors evolve and adapt to their new circumstances, as they stay hidden from the other worldly beings (I won't spoil things for you, but they aren't aliens) who prowl on the surface. Now one of their underground cities faces a new threat from within, and in order to survive they must do what they have been taught not to do for generations. Go back up the surface.
I loved everything about Tallwood. Kool has not only constructed a story of epic proportions, she has taken everything I adore about post apocalyptic fiction and made it better! The world building is, to put it bluntly, superb. I was enthralled by the quiet world Kool built in Tallwood, with the permeating silence and minimal use of prose (most of the dwellers underground use sign language) really underlining the chilling and alien tone that dominates the book. This unobtrusive world, where humanity does it utmost to stay hidden and silent, really made those moments where the shit hits the fan all the more jarring and thrilling, and had me on edge of my seat as I read. I also adored how each underground enclave felt unique and had its own identity, and the new culture that had developed underground over generations was interesting and very well thought out. The surface was also as I imagined it would be. Dangerous and riddled with looming threats, the constantly changing relationship between the two environments really added a captivating layer to an already enthralling universe
The characterisation was also impressive throughout Tallwood. I loved all of the protagonists in this book, and I was constantly amazed by Kool's ability to depict layered and complex individuals with little or no dialogue at all. Gestures, facial expressions, and other non-verbal means of communication become extremely important in a story where any dialogue can bring in death, and Kool does a magnificent job making each individual unique and fascinating to the reader. All of the humans felt realistic and normal, and I immediately felt a bond with them as they tried to survive and eek out an existence in a constantly dangerous environment. Tallwood is not a coming of age story (as a lot of post apocalyptic stories are), with Kool focusing on a cast of individuals whose paths all cross over as the story unfolds. Where Kool really hits a home run however is with her depiction of the 'Johns', those other worldly beings on the surface. The 'Johns' are malevolent (well, for the most part), creepy, and incredibly dangerous. I adored her depiction of Jared, a 'John' who struggles with being part man and part monster. Jared's alienation from both humanity and the other 'Johns' was an interesting dynamic that really left me wanting to know more and more about him as the story raced to its conclusion.
Another impressive aspect of Tallwood was its pacing. After a strange start, where the reader needs to persevere in order to find their feet, the book really takes off and sucks you into its quiet strangeness. Some readers have found Tallwood a little dense in parts, but I never felt this as the book seamlessly ran its course and unfolded with a conclusion that was both satisfying and open ended (I hope Kool writes a sequel). In fact, if I had one small criticism it would be that at times I would have liked a little more detail and description at times.
Tallwood is one of the most unique books I've ever read. It is also one of the best post apocalyptic stories I've come across in recent years. Combining a strange and incredibly enchanting universe with authentic and exciting characterisation and action, Tallwood is storytelling at its absolute finest. A must read for fans of speculative fiction everywhere!
5 out of 5 stars.