Book Review: First Shift – Legacy by Hugh Howey

First ShiftFrequenters to my site know Hugh Howey is one of my favorite authors, ever since I came across his novelette, “The Plagiarist,” and quickly thereafter, Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 – 5) (Silo Saga). If you haven’t read Hugh yet, I’d recommend starting there. *** I waffle later in this review about whether or not reading this prequel first is better. ***

The intro novelette to Wool Omnibus, “Wool 1,” is permanently free on Kindle. My review of Wool Omnibus is spoiler-free, as are the podcast interviews linked within discussing Wool and Hugh’s publishing success story.

All that to say, I picked up First shift (now that the Shift Omnibus Edition (Shift 1-3) (Silo Saga) is available) with very high expectations. Waiting for the omnibus edition to arrive meant overhearing lots of positive reviews, many saying it was better than Wool, which is a tall order.

[My review of Shift Omnibus is now up at SF Signal.]

It may seem unfair to read a book with these kind of expectations, but it’s impossible to keep them out. I wanted Shift to be better than its predecessor, and thus every scene was seen through that extra critical lens. The good news is that First Shift held its own, and added a tremendous new level of interest into an already amazing series.

Emotional similarity: Hugh touches a familiar emotion with two lovers separated by duty and outside pressure. In “Wool 1,” it was a prisoner separated from his wife, and in First Shift, it is an architect of the silos whose ambition to impress the project head causes him to lose significant time with his wife. I liked both characters equally, so Hugh did a great job on that. He also does a great job of keeping the conspiracy tension at a high level. While Wool hit on the tension of the conspiracy already in place, First Shift showed us the one man, silo architect, Congressman Donald Keene, who could have stopped everything from happening, and the consequences of his failure.

Where Wool 1 beat First Shift: Part of the reason why “Wool 1″ was slightly better is because that thread is tied by the end, whereas First Shift‘s conclusion leaves their thread to be picked up later. “Wool 1″ may be the strongest emotional climax that I’ve read in short fiction, but First Shift is four times as long, so Wool may have benefited from feeling more like a suckerpunch. First Shift is four times as long, which isn’t necessarily bad because it is an outstanding read, but, unlike “Wool 1,” which was never meant to be the first part of a longer story, First Shift isn’t meant to deliver the knockout blow. That said, it does have a great couple twists–to Wool’s one–and still has a very emotional climax.

Where First Shift improved on Wool 1: Both stories start out with a sense of urgency, and while Wool had the benefit of introducing us to the world of living inside a silo, First Shift shows a new take on silo life–how the rebellion started–and what caused the silo to be built in the first place. The alternating POV’s between pre-silo and pre-Wool builds toward a twist that surprised me, and a climax that creates a strong resonance with Donald’s quest. I am so excited to see what happens, because the odds against him are consistently overwhelming, and I can’t wait to see how his quest works with Wool and the concluding novel, Dust, out late 2013.

Is it better to read the prequel second: Book reviewer, Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings, says “The delicious tension and suspense that will keep you turning the pages is greatly enhanced with the revelations of the first five parts of the series.” I heartily agree that the foreknowledge of disaster-to-come makes the tension of pre-disaster better, but I wonder if someone might enjoy the hope of not knowing what happens. Would the conclusion to First Shift be better if you didn’t already know what would happen regarding the silo apocalypse? Kudos to Hugh for not making that the big reveal, but finding out both may have been an incredible one-two punch. The cat’s out of the bag at this point, but I wonder if Hugh would have liked to introduce us to this series through First Shift if he could have. While I agree that the tension is increased by knowing what will happen, I also think there is enough tension in the story without knowing to make it stand alone.

I recommend reading Carl’s First Shift review for his excellent job of giving more details about the characters and situation.

My conclusion: First Shift succeeds at piquing the interest built into the series through Wool, providing new characters to love and a backstory that makes the boundary between villain and good guy less distinct. Although First Shift did not hit quite as hard as the conclusion to “Wool 1,” it is hard to find fault because First Shift is an introduction, while “Wool 1″ was never meant to go any longer.

4.5/5 stars.

Shift OmnibusListen to Hugh Howey discuss Wool Omnibus spoiler free (AudioTim 32), as well as how he became an overnight indie author success story (AudioTim 33).

You can buy a signed copy of Shift Omnibus from Hugh’s website, but it won’t arrive for at least a few weeks as he is gone for a couple weeks promoting the UK release of Wool Omnibus. The cover is likely a limited edition, matching that of the original Wool Omnibus, so if you’re into that kind of thing, I’d jump on it.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: First Shift – Legacy by Hugh Howey”

  1. Great stuff, Tim. I hadn’t expected any less. Good call on noticing the way in which Keene’s story with his wife parallels that of the first Wool short story. I hadn’t picked up on that but it is a very astute observation and looking back one I can see very clearly now.

    POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOR THIS AND WOOL:

    My thoughts about reading this series first vs. the Wool series were hampered by my intense desire to spoil as little, or none, of Wool for those who haven’t read it. I was even careful to edit out several mentions that I made of silos, plural, vs. silo because of the fact that part of the fun of reading Wool is that moment when you realize this is not the only silo still active. I didn’t want to shore up my reasoning on the back of spoilers.

    My own personal opinion (which is hard to objectively support) is that I would not have had much of a connection to Troy as a character without the bigger picture of the silo system gained from having read the Wool stories. Keene was a little more sympathetic without any of that prior knowledge because he is made likeable first by his desire to be a better politician and second because of his obvious devotion to his wife. But even his story benefited from having had that insight gained from Wool. I found knowing what he was getting wrapped up in more horrifying because of it.

    I also believe First Shift is a better story having read Wool first is that even with all the insight I had as a reader I was surprised by the twists and turns that occurred near the end of the book. They would have been surprising at any rate, sure, but knowing what was coming and still being surprised? That is skillful storytelling and I want to give Howey mad props for that.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Carl. We’re doing a good job of patting each other on the back today, aren’t we? As much as I’ve discussed and read from your post, I’m still right in the middle on which to read first, leaning toward Hugh’s advice because I have a hunch that something is going to happen as we progress through the rest of SHIFT that will make first reading WOOL better. But, I like thinking about what may have been different had he not wrote WOOL first. I liked Troy, maybe as much as if I hadn’t read WOOL, and I wonder how my thoughts on the villains in WOOL would have been different if I read Troy’s story first.

      Good point on the ending still being a surprise. Lots of cool surprises at the end.

      I’m also trying to read a little of the other books I’m working through, so we’ll see how much faster I finish than you. I can hold mine from posting to post them at similar times if we’re close, and maybe we’ll have a nice discussion going that would work better posting close together. We’ll see.

      1. If we didn’t pat each other on the back we’d have to do it ourselves and that can too easily throw out a shoulder. :)

        This is a terrible example, I admit, but at the moment all I can compare my feelings to are the way I feel about The Silmarillion vs. The Lord of the Rings. I LOVE them both, may even have stronger feelings about The Silmarillion, but it wouldn’t be near the book it was without the affection for the world created by The Lord of the Rings .

        Again, terrible comparison, probably shouldn’t have brought it up, but there you go. Like you I think it is a very worthy discussion to have especially since people will ask which to read first.

        I like the idea of discussing them together. I have a friend who I got to read Wool who is actually ahead of me on these and I wish I could convince her to come here or to my site to discuss but she rarely does, thinking she has nothing to add which is very untrue.

        I’m not sure now if I would have liked Troy any less but his story is still so vague that I might not have been able to imagine his surroundings as clearly. It is impossible to surmise whether or not this really would have made any difference to me though as I do believe it functions as a really well told stand alone story. Or mostly that, the ending, as you pointed out, is not as complete as Wool 1.

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