Author: John Bierce
Plague has come to the continent of Teringia.
As the Wrack makes its slow, relentless march southwards, it will humble kings and healers, seers and merchants, priests and warriors. Behind, it leaves only screams and suffering, and before it, spreads only fear.
Lothain, the birthplace of the Wrack, desperately tries to hold itself together as the plague burns across it and its neighbors circle like vultures. The Moonsworn healers would fight the Wrack, but must navigate distrust and violence from the peoples of Teringia. Proud Galicanta readies itself for war, as the Sunsworn Empire watches and waits for the Wrack to bring its rival low.
And the Wrack advances, utterly unconcerned with the plans of men.
The Wrack is a really immersive, relevant, weird, unique and interesting fantasy book with plenty of worldbuilding.
It’s the worldbuilding (and the style) that’s the strength of the book and I’d go as far as suggesting this may not be the read for you if you’re all about character development and that side of things; it’s not a character driven story, it’s a plague driven story! Some characters you expect to have a prominent role throughout the book only make a fleeting appearance and before you know it, the next chapter takes you somewhere else. On one occasion we find out a character from an earlier chapter won’t be giving us another POV and that’s that. For me personally, this plays well into the sense of unease the author successfully weaves through the story and was a real strength! Afterall, this is the tale of an epidemic; plot armour would diminish the looming threat of such a disease if it didn’t have any effect on any of the main characters we meet.
The story follows the spread of The Wrack and the effect it has on the people and cultures, and the reactions the people have to it. In a way, the disease itself is the main character of the story and I have to say it’s fascinating. Bierce obviously has knowledge himself but consulted scientists too, and it shows. After the end of the story, he also gives us some more in depth scientific information about elements in the story that I found really interesting. If you’re not into that you don’t have to read it, it’s more like a bonus (but I do recommend it).
I really love the way Bierce threads so much worldbuilding into the story as we follow the spread of the disease and through this we learn so much about the different cultures and factions with their differing reactions; a deadly epidemic can also be an opportunity. There are also some short chapters that serve as a way to expand on this depth and tell short stories of their own, giving us a further familiarity of the types of people that make up this world. Chapter Fourteen, A Duel at Sea was a touching example that was actually quite moving in the end. It’s only a few pages long but that’s testament to Bierce’s talent for telling a story and the writing style/prose was something which added to my enjoyment of the book as a whole and gave things a polished, professional feel. Just while I’m on chapters, I really liked the chapter titles which were a nice refreshing change from the boring ones you usually get in books. A Galicantan Propensity for Polite Lies is one of my favourite sounding examples.
For all the immersive worldbuilding, I do feel it’s a shame not to have a map to refer back to; maybe in a future edition? In a book in which we follow the spread of a deadly disease, a map would have been nice to be able to relate the locations to each other easier and to refer to the various factions. I must point out though that this is only a small gripe because I enjoyed the book a lot and this would have enhanced it even more.
I feel it’s appropriate to touch on the timing of the release and the story ends up being a lot more relatable in many ways than it usually ought to be. Bierce as he writes in his introduction, had just sent his finished manuscript off to the editor when the WHO declared Covid-19 a worldwide pandemic. Whilst not intentional, I think the timing probably works in the book’s favour with the panic and horror caused by The Wrack being something we can imagine even more easily and will resonate to some extent.
Bierce creates a real sense of growing dread and terror, and honestly as I got through the book, the very name The Wrack evoked feelings of horror. He creates this atmosphere with a few techniques but having the onset of The Wrack epitomised by the dreadful screaming of its victims creates such a sinister vibe. There was a particularly powerful passage about the silence being almost as scary as the screaming; when you imagine a normally busy place full of people suddenly characterised by silence, interspersed with the screaming of the victims, it feels particularly spine tingling.
Some might feel that the ending comes quite abruptly but I liked that. I liked that the fast pace of the book wasn’t tarnished by a drawn out finale with needless explanations. It’s concise but we learn everything we need to know. One of my favourite parts of the book was an extract from an anonymous essay published four decades after the events of the main story. It’s a startlingly honest account of one survivor’s thoughts and experiences that I believe says a lot about humans. In reality as in this account, not everyone can be a hero. Self preservation is a powerful instinctive force that I don’t think anyone can completely rule out taking hold in a life or death situation. I found it very powerful.
This is an epidemiological fantasy – you know why it’s epidemiological (not a common fantasy sub-genre!) but why is it fantasy? Well, it’s a low fantasy story and the fantasy elements are ones I really liked. We have seers who are able to see the world differently. The catch is that they have to sacrifice an eye (or two) in order to do so. With the aid of different gemstones and elements they are able to see forces others cannot, depending on their ability as a seer and the gemstone used – some rarer than others.
There are also semaphore towers which are used for long distance communication. Using currents that exist in the spirit realm, a seer is able to send messages along the currents to be picked up at semaphore towers in distant lands. It isn’t a perfect system and depends on the infrastructure and man-power to be effective. It becomes eery as the story goes on and less messages are able to be transmitted as the semaphore towers become uninhabited.
Bierce has a real talent for evoking these uneasy feelings and eery atmosphere, of painting a world in terror. As someone who usually prefers ideas, plot and worldbuilding over a focus on characters, this was especially enjoyable and I felt it was a masterful book at achieving what it sets out to do. I very highly recommend it to readers with similar tastes to myself but also to people who just want to read something a little different to what they’re used to.
It is books like this that make me feel very lucky to be a roadie for Storytellers on Tour. Thankyou to John Bierce and Storytellers on Tour for the review copy. Check out the other stops on the tour:
P.S. Another great cover from Amir Zand. I adore his work.
About the Author
John Bierce is a history buff, fantasy and science fiction lover, and fan of talking about himself in the third person. He also has a background in the earth sciences, and has been caught licking rocks before. For science.
Your chance to win a copy of The Wrack!
Like the sound of this book? Want the chance to win a copy? There are 5 copies available to win through the link below! This is open to US residents only I’m afraid (closes August 9th 2020 11:59pm EDT)