Recently, I read and reviewed Bruce Schindler's Dust and Cannibals, the first in a series of novels set in a post apocalyptic world where just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong. That book focused mainly on the survivors that live in and around the Harlan County area of rural Nebraska. At the end of that story, the people of Harlan County had defeated a band of cannibals, managed to avoid being annihilated by a devastating flesh-eating chemical agent, and a group of terrorists bent on killing every human being not agreeing with their philosophical point of view. They also managed to begin putting their small society in order by setting up a government of sorts and finding a role for everyone to contribute to the good of the community. by the end of the story, things were looking pretty good for the people of Harlan County.
Mud and Horizons is the second book in the series and it focuses mainly on the character, Mark Tahner, a former soldier in the Army who came to Harlan (the residents decided to leave off the 'county') from fighting in Afghanistan. Mark made his way from that country back to the U.S. and along with his friend and fellow soldier, Josh, trek across the country after engaging in fighting on the Mexican border. Mark and Josh became a part of the Harlan community by demonstrating that they had skills and by being willing to contribute productively.
Lyle Lillard, the de facto leader of Harlan, recognizes Mark's abilities and worth and appoints him the manager of Harlan
Ranch. Among his duties, Mark manages horses, the only means of transportation in this world with very limited resources.
While out checking around, Deputy Vince discovers some bicycle tracks. Knowing that no one in Harlan is currently using that particular mode of transport because of the heavy rains, this becomes an area of concern. Further investigation reveals that there are people from the McCook area observing the activity of Harlan. It is soon learned that the cannibals, now under the sole leadership of Stanley Peepul, did not perish when the moved out of Harlan, but are now hunting and butchering wild pigs. The folks of Harlan are a little skeptical, but begin setting up relations with the people of McCook and trade begins to take place.
Meanwhile, Mark strikes up a rather steamy relationship with Ellen and manages to get himself in a little trouble. He worries about his position as the manager of Harlan Ranch and what Lyle might do when he learns of what is happening, and rightfully so because Mark's behavior and a subsequent falling out with Ellen has Mark looking toward the horizon and thinking about a hasty retreat. There is a period where Mark has his "foot on the rail" (referring to going over the fence and making a clean getaway, but he hesitates, knowing that if he pursues that course of action, he will not survive on his own.
With winter coming on, arrangements have to be made for the survival of the people of Harlan as well as the Peepul tribe, who have somewhat redeemed themselves, now that they are no longer hunting humans as a food source. Also, the newcomers from McCook will need to be provided for. For the time being, there is an uneasy peace in Harlan, but on the horizon there are the terrorists looming over any possibility of becoming comfortable.
In this second installment of the Dust and Cannibals series of books, the pace is quite a bit more laid back than the previous story. There is a lot to do to prepare for the upcoming winter season and the focus is more centered on Harlan County. But the slower pace does not take away from the quality of the story in any way, because we get quite a bit more character development in this volume. While the story focuses a lot on Mark Tahner, it also reveals a lot about other characters, especially Stanley Peepul.
In the first book, Stanley was presented as a possibly mentally handicapped individual who was the puppet of Willie, the St. Louis petty criminal that broke him out of jail and encouraged the cannibalistic activity of the tribe that Stanley now is well in command of. According to the author, appearances where Stanley are concerned are quite deceiving.
The mysterious people that seemed to be in charge of McCook include Sammie, a former Air Force officer and four Marine snipers. While they think they may be in charge in McCook with members of the Peepul tribe serving their every whim, they do not seem to know that Stanley's followers only serve Sammie at Stanley's pleasure. Stanley is turning out to be an intelligent and very formidable character with survival instincts that will most likely be quite valuable to the people of Harlan. He only acted as a buffoon because that is the role that he has been expected to fill for his whole life, but in Mud and Horizons there is no one to pull Stanley's strings and his real personality is coming out. Where he was quite repulsive in the previous book, he is now becoming quite likable and I am looking forward to further character development on him.
I really enjoyed this book as much as I did the first one. Whenever I pick up the book, I feel like I am entering the Twilight Zone. I never know what to expect from one page to
the next because things in Bruce's universe are quite unpredictable. One of the strongest points about this book is that it develops characters to the point that I can care about them. As I read, the people of Harlan County become real to me and it matters to me what happens to them.
Bruce assures me that there will soon be a third installment in the Dust and Cannibals series, and I am looking forward to that one.
If you want to know more about the author and what he has written so far, you can find links to that information by following the link above in the first sentence of this post.
Well, there it is...