Joint Review – White Horse by Alex Adams

Cover for White Horse by Alex Adams

Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Publish Date: Out Now (Trade Paperback comes out Dec 18, 2012)
How we got this book: Hardcover & PDF from publisher

The world has ended, but her journey has just begun.

Thirty-year-old Zoe leads an ordinary life until the end of the world arrives. She is cleaning cages and floors at Pope Pharmaceuticals when the president of the United States announces that human beings are no longer a viable species. When Zoe realizes that everyone she loves is disappearing, she starts running. Scared and alone in a shockingly changed world, she embarks on a remarkable journey of survival and redemption. Along the way, Zoe comes to see that humans are defined not by their genetic code, but rather by their actions and choices. White Horse offers hope for a broken world, where love can lead to the most unexpected places.

*blurb from Goodreads

MiscJoy: Where to begin with a book of this nature? I think the obvious choice is the prose. Adams presents us with a story written with some of the most beautiful prose I’ve come across in awhile. The richness of the language and the author’s voice drew me in immediately. Just stunning. I found myself pausing frequently just to admire the narrative. Even something as simple as describing a character with waxy skin was done by writing, “his skin is on loan from Madame Tussaud’s.”

Has: I totally agree it is really hard and to sum up this book, because of the themes and prose which is set out in an alternating Then and Now narrative that explains the virus outbreak and Zoe’s quest…

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…So it took awhile for me to understand what was going on, because the concise and stark prose which was beautifully written had a dreamy tone and feel that really fit the atmosphere of the book. Because it really felt like reading an epic Greek myth where Zoe is at the centre of a tragic unfolding where her world has been destroyed and ripped apart by a genetic virus that changes and kills the people around her. It is chilling and terrifying, and Alex Adams does not take any prisoners in the way terrifying and shocking things that happen, especially in the first few pages, which features rape. But at the same time, there is an element of what it is to be human, which Zoe clings on with a tenacity which becomes a touchstone.

MiscJoy: My experience while reading this novel reminded me of my undergrad years studying one of the greats in English Lit where the language was so dense and lush that I couldn’t read for more than a few hours at a time. My brain could only absorb so much no matter how much I enjoyed what I was reading. I went through three phases while reading this book: First came “Oh, look at all the pretty prose! Omg I love the language. This is so beautifully written. I must stop to admire how Adams did that.” Second came, “Wow, my brain is on overload from all the pretty prose. I find myself missing all the good bits and I must go back and revisit.” Third, “It’s all just too much! Bleak. Heavy. Tragedy. I can’t take one more thing. Not. One. More. Thing. I must take a break from all the heavy because that one more thing? It just happened.”

Adams does not pull any punches when it comes to her characters and what she puts them through. They die, they live, they are eviscerated, whatever. No one is safe from the author’s mercy or lack thereof. You will not find warm and fuzzy here. You will, however go on a journey with Zoe. As Has mentioned, Zoe’s efforts to retain her humanity in a world where what it means to be human may no longer be defined by DNA is one of the bright spots in an otherwise dark story. There were moments that would have been easier on Zoe if she had been willing to compromise that even just a little bit. But that is the essence of integrity – holding oneself to one’s honor code even if that means making the more difficult choice when no one is looking. I admired that about her.

Has: I think that message about holding onto oneself really shines in this book, because of her retaining her morals in a world where that dissipates, she learns that even those who may have lost their humanity may regain it. In a lot of ways with the way the narrative juxtaposes the past and the present, the future holds some hope and a rebirth. And I love the theme that despite all the destruction, there is hope, love and rebirth at the end of the book.

The dark and desolate tone and theme of the book is also balanced out with humour and I loved Zoe’s inner snark and humour in the events and situations she find herself in. There are even instances of black humour which the prose and dialogue really conveys in a wicked but full of pathos way -

“What do you use for accelerant?”
“Gasoline,” she says between outbursts. “It’s free now. We just take
what we need.”
—gasoline, going up in flames, is hilarious. “I thought you quit smoking.” “I did, until the plague got me and I died. I figured I got nothing to lose now.” It’s like July Fourth, with real baby-back ribs—and grown-up ribs, too. And I can’t stop. The volcano is erupting and my laughter flows down its sides in great fiery rivers. Burning people. In the community pool.
We laugh until we’re doubled over. And then something changes and
the horror comes back and we start to cry.
“This is fucking bullshit,” she says, “I’m a soldier. Soldiers don’t cry, especially if they’ve got tits. It’s hard enough as it is.”

I think without that element of hope, and even black humour, this book would be very hard to read because it delves into ugly and dark themes and it really helped to flesh out and add more facets into Zoe’s narration with her story and the quest she embarks on. It also helped to show another factor of what it is to be human in a dark and crazy world and humour albeit black humour helps to cope with the desolation and destruction that is going on.

MiscJoy: Yes, absolutely on both fronts! The death-rebirth cycle is a prominent theme of this book. And without that cycle there can be no hope. Even as Zoe thought she could circumvent that cycle by avoiding certain things – the jar, the letter – she couldn’t change the universal truth of it. And the black humor – definitely a necessary element and well appreciated.

I’m not sure how I felt about the ending. On the one hand, it wrapped everything up into a nice neat package. On the other, well, it wrapped everything up into a nice neat package. After everything we had been through with Zoe – all the pain, the heartache, the terror, the struggle to subsist – the ending felt a bit abrupt and coincidental to me. I think, given the overall feel of the book, I would actually have preferred a more open-ended finis. Even though there is a very thin romantic thread coursing through this book, it is a Post-Apocalyptic Thriller and needn’t follow the same rules commonly found in Romance, PNR or UF.

One odd little tick for me: there were some sexist elements presented in the narrative. Yes, there is one misogynistic character called the Swiss from whom we get an earful, but that’s not what I’m referring to here. I found it embedded in some comments made by Zoe and other ancillary characters. In one conversation where a character had stated that he had always wanted to be an astronaut, Zoe replied with a “you and every other American boy.” Later, in scenes involving the lists of fallen soldiers, there seemed to be an implication of it being “sons, fathers, husbands.” Last I looked, there were plenty of women serving in the military. It just seemed an odd exclusion by omission.

Has: I got that sense too – I also felt the Swiss was a bit of a cardboard cut-out villain and not that well fleshed out for me. Although he was more like the Big Bad and nightmare fear for Zoe. But I wished there was something more to expand his character especially with the twist at the end…

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…And even though he was psychotic and crazy, it just didn’t make sense.

I also agree with the ending being tied up perfectly, but I think it did suit the story, because this was Zoe’s odyssey and quest and I liked that it ended on a hopeful note. I just wished there was more on the romantic sub-plot with Nick who in many ways was like a dream character. But the few scenes they were in together, they had a fantastic dynamic and I liked the chemistry they shared together, although it did feel very dream-like and I think this is the curse and the blessing of the book. Because of its tone and themes, the dreamy and mythic feel felt unrealistic. There was no real detail on how things unraveled, we get the focus on the emotions, on loss and grief and not the basic everyday details and facts on how everything fell apart. It was all so vague and in the Then narrative that was much harder to understand than in the Now which was much more suited to the Greek mythic overtones.

However, this is a book that remains with you for a very long time, and it is evocative and thought-provoking. And even though it was very hard at times to read because of the stark and desolate tone, the themes of hope, rebirth and what it is to be human adds multilayers of depth and meaning in the story. But for me, Zoe’s story to survive and to search for her lost love…

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…was powerful and emotional. I was engrossed in her story and the strength of Alex Adam’s prose and witty humour really shines. White Horse may not be a book for everyone, but I am definitely glad I did read it because I was swept away with Zoe’s journey which was full of hope, loss and enduring love.

I give White Horse a B+

MiscJoy: I agree with the Swiss being more of a Big Bad and I would have liked to understand just how he found Zoe in all that chaos at the end of the world. As for Nick and Zoe – I never really bought into the initial foundation of their relationship. They met in the Then, before the world changed, as doctor-patient. Nick breached the doctor-patient boundary in the Then by asking Zoe out and encouraging a flirting tenor to their interactions. I felt the onus should have been on Nick to maintain the professional boundary regardless of what he may be feeling, but he didn’t seem to have any conflict about that. However, after the world changed, I could relate to their relationship in the Now as a desire to hold onto something familiar, reaching for love wherever one finds it and carrying that fragile feeling in one’s heart because to go without that shining beacon would be self destruction.

It’s hard for me to say I “liked” a book of this nature. Does one even use the words like and dislike when discussing a work artfully crafted with such obvious care that touches so deeply, drags you (willingly) kicking and screaming through the darkness leaving you drained at the end while also managing to plant a small seed of hope? The best I can say is the story is beautifully written – the writing style, voice – all of it superb. I can’t not help but admire the skill that went into crafting a novel of this nature. Yes, it has some flaws, but none so large as to detract from the overall work. I will surely return to this book for inspiration, to appreciate the language and to savor the way this story unfolded and drew me in.

I give White Horse an A.

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