Happy Friday! This post comes to you slightly less last-minute than some have recently. Summer is a time of odd and unusual work schedules, due to coworker vacations and other things beyond my control, but in this case it’s made posting a bit easier this week.
My review today is of a book that is not in my favorite genre, but not so far from it that you will struggle to see why I picked it up. The Nothing Within defies nearly all labels that I have tried to apply. Although for much of the book the protagonist is in her early 20s, I don’t consider this a Young Adult book; it just doesn’t have the themes or style that those usually have. And, while a good-sized portion of the story takes place in an Amish community, it is not “Amish fiction” or “Christian fiction.” Even the genre I have settled on, Science fiction, doesn’t quite fit exactly right. It is really something; let’s get into the review so you can begin to understand what I mean.
Title: The Nothing Within
Author: Andy Giesler
Genre: Science Fiction
Synopsis (from Goodreads): What unforgivable sin would you commit to save the world?
In 2161, the first chimera arose. A year later, twelve billion people were dead. The few who survived called it the Reckoning.
Generations later, their descendants hide within the walls of small, rustic villages, cowering from chimeras. They revere tradition. They fear innovation. They mistrust anything that’s different.
Root couldn’t be more different.
Curious and irreverent, she disquiets her village. Blind daughter of the village guardian, she stands apart. Frustrated with a wall-bound life, she grudgingly accepts it—until she hears the voice that no one else can hear.
Root’s journey will take her into the wilds to discover the truth: that her world has been twisted by people trying to save it. And her choices will determine whether humankind’s last ember flickers out.
A rural-dystopian novel exploring post-apocalyptic Amish country, a society shaped by fear, and private choices that remake the world.
Read the last line of the synopsis above again, and you should know exactly when I was hooked. I am not sure that a phrase could be tailor made to pique my interest more than “exploring post-apocalyptic Amish country.”
I knew from the beginning that this would be a difficult review to write. The Nothing Within constantly defied my expectations while I read it, shifting the story from one understanding to another, only to destroy that understanding a few chapters later – it’s almost like the story itself is a chimera. But is it one that destroys, or heals?
The story begins with a mismatch of information; snippets of stories that only really make sense much farther into the book, but are essential background information despite the readers initial inability to understand. Isn’t that just how life goes, though? You learn a piece here, another there, and eventually you put together a big picture of the things going on around you. You learn more as you travel, as our protagonist does, and as you learn about the past you might begin to grasp the general shape of where your life is headed.
The Nothing Within forces the philosophy of utilitarianism to toe the line. It analyzes in excruciating detail and from multiple perspectives the question of how far is too far to go to save someone – even if that someone is the entire human race. Does it ever become right to do something which in most circumstances is considered a crime, in order to prevent another crime? This isn’t just Nicholas Cage’s “I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence” type crimes, either. The characters in The Nothing Within face scenarios like choosing between killing billions instantly, or watching everyone die painfully slowly. We are asked to consider whether the safety and good of a community is more important than the safety and life of a single individual, and that of the whole world over that of a community. This definitely isn’t Louisa May Alcott’s morality we’re looking at.
It’s a wonderfully crafted book. Some of the central characters are called Weavers, and like a weaver the author brings together vastly different accounts of the world. Somehow, these accounts successfully merge to become something incredible which held my attention. It is difficult for me to really like many of the characters, as they all show flaws as well as beauty, but they are thoroughly created and work together well.
The main perspectives woven together in The Nothing Within come from
- Root – We see her at several different stages of life, from precocious young child to elderly matron. Nearly everything about her sets her apart from everyone she knows, and none of her differences seem beneficial. She is stubborn and does not trust easily, which ends up helping her in the end. She has been lied to and “shielded” all of her life, and knows nothing about what really happened in the world before her time until she searches it out.
- Ruth – An Amish woman who keeps a journal of everything that happens around her as the world falls apart, some generations before Root’s life. Her actions are traditional, but her thoughts more difficult to figure out.
A few others pop in from time to time, and we also get to hear “good old stories” that are like folk tales passed down through generations. These contain plenty of information to figure out what has happened and what is going on. However, I’ll admit that the reality was little more than a hint floating through my brain before it is spelled out in the final sections, mostly because the explanation is so unexpected. Nearly unreasonable, but given the situations and futuristic setting, it holds. Every few chapters alternates between these perspectives. At times this is frustrating, because one chapter might end on a cliff hanger and another take up the perspective of someone in an entirely different time and place, but if you can put aside short-term annoyance, the bigger picture is worth it.
For all of the genius that went into weaving these various strands of stories together, there are a few things that I take issue with. First and foremost is the frequency of overwhelmingly vulgar language. I could be lenient and say that they are not the worst words ever used, and given the end of the world scenario, attempt to sweep away this concern, but I won’t. The honest truth is that there is so much vulgar language in pretty much every chapter that several times I nearly stopped reading because of this alone. Whether it fit the characters or not, and went with the situation or not, is beside the point. This kind of language is abrasive to the reader, and rather than enhancing my reading experience, took quite a bit away from it. It is jarring and, again, frustrating. If the story as a whole had been so well written and hooked me early into the mystery of figuring out what happened and what it means for the characters, I probably would have stopped reading multiple times. This alone makes me not want to reread The Nothing Within, even though I am sure there are more clues and subtle connections I could find between events if I would.
My other complaints are less intense, but no less meaningful. There is a section that discusses in very veiled language a coming of age ceremony(?) Root’s community has, which is entirely sexual in nature. Nothing is said outright, which I mostly appreciate, but it is confusing and awkward for everyone. This section does necessarily connect to the rest of the story, and plays a moderate role in everything, and if it had to be written I guess it is as murky and respectable as possible, but still. I didn’t like it, and it seems like the characters and information gained from this part could have been introduced another way.
Finally, I felt let down by the portrayal of the Amish community. Granted, most of what I know about the Amish way of life comes from other books and just general knowledge, so I do not have the insight that someone who grew up in Amish country would have (which the author did). Still, Ruth’s emotional/mental distance from her community from the beginning was disappointing. It does not take many pages for many in this community to abandon and disrespect much of their way of life and things that they once held holy. My opinion on this is simply my personal preference; the author chose the type of people to portray and their mindsets, and they are not what I would have chosen, but this is not my book and thus not my place to decide. It is simply my place to be honest about what I did and didn’t like from a reader’s perspective.
One last thing I want to point out is that, since most of the book is told as an oral history, it is written in a unique dialect. Grammar rules are intentionally broken all over the place. It didn’t bother me once I got the hang of it, and it did not take long to get used to it. However, I have read a few reviews where readers were caught off guard and significantly bothered by this, so I wanted to mention it just in case.
The story hooked me from the very beginning. I loved the process of puzzling out what has happened, who became whom, and what the foreshadowing meant. The vulgarity of the language was a big turn off, almost to the point of abandoning the story altogether, but I had to find out what happened in the end (and, consequently, what had happened before). There are a lot of interesting philosophical concepts sprinkled throughout, if you know what to look for, but they are not so obvious or dry that they take away from the simple enjoyment of reading a novel. I probably will not reread The Nothing Within, but I am glad to have read it once. I’ve pretty well settled on giving it 3.5 stars on Goodreads, although I would not be surprised if that changes as I continue to think on it. There are certainly people who I would recommend this book to, and others who I would not. I recommend 15 and up due to the combination of vulgarity and deeper philosophical content. Fans of post-apocalyptic science fiction/speculative fiction with a philosophical bent will most likely enjoy The Nothing Within.
Until the next chapter,
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this ebook from the author and happily provide this honest review.