For the most part, I’m not an avid reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. I loved The Stand (of course), Brian Keene’s The Rising, and I enjoyed One by Conrad Williams. That’s about it. But, as with everything else he writes, Ronald Malfi is able to mine the core of the human experience, elevating what could be just another exercise in a well-worn horror trope to a powerfully affecting story. As always, his prose is tight, powerful, and he has the same capacity as Stephen King to breathe life into three-dimensional, fully-realized characters.
Because really, this is a story about the depth of a father’s love for his daughter, and the lengths he’ll go to protect her. David Arlen simply wants to keep his daughter Ellie safe. He wants to protect her not only from the living nightmare the world has become, but also from those who would use Ellie for her unique nature. In that way, there’s a lot of Firestarter here—a father fleeing government officials who view his daughter as an asset and nothing more—though it’s never quite hinted that the government officials pursuing David and his daughter are quite as malevolent as those in Firestarter.
What also drew me to this novel was the plague itself: “Wanderer’s Folly,” a sickness which affects the mind and causes powerful hallucinations and crippling paranoia (but, thank God, not eating everyone). We’re never given an explanation for its origin (a good thing, in my mind, because those can get overly complex), and, as is true in the best post-apocalyptic tales, there’s just as much to fear from unaffected humans as there is the sick, including one family in particular which, in true post-apocalyptic fashion, has embraced the inevitability of “the end” with just a bit too much religious fervor.
What really powers this novel, of course, is Malfi’s specialty: fully-realized, tangible characters you can associate with and care deeply about. Also, what I considered a refreshing touch: even though David is deliberately withholding the true nature of how Ellie’s mother died (and THAT was a painfully well-laid, gut-wrenching surprise), when the truth is finally made known, Ellie doesn’t suddenly descend into a childish bitterness and hate her father, thus making their trip more difficult. She accepts it, staying true to her character. Malfi manages to paint Ellie both as realistically eight-years old, but also wise beyond her years, in that way only eight-year olds have.
The ending is especially powerful, and I don’t think I’ve been this moved emotionally by a novel’s ending since another Malfi novel, Floating Staircase. What’s especially intriguing is that the end will leave you torn: is this final vision a hallucination, or does something supernatural occur? Or, even if it is a hallucination, if the mind receiving it believes it’s real…is it any less real to that mind, just because it doesn’t really happen?
Anyway—a highly recommended novel which, like everything Malfi writes, transcends genre and is a powerful story about love, family, and sacrifice.