Frequenters 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.
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.
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.