Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Book Review: The Breaking of Northwall

Book Review: 'The Breaking of Northwall' by Paul O. Williams

5 / 5 Stars
‘The Breaking of Northwall’ (280 pp) was published in February, 1981; the cover art is by Darrell K. Sweet.

This is the first volume of 'The Pelbar Cycle', which ultimately comprised 7 volumes published from 1981 - 1985. Although the entries in the Cycle all share the same setting and jointly reference particular characters, each novel is more or less a standalone work.

Author Paul O. Williams (1935 – 2009) was a poet and a faculty member at Principia College in Illinois. 

[Principia College is if course the flagship college of the Christian Scientist Church. It is unclear to me if Williams' fiction incorporates the philosophies of Christian Science or its founders, Phineas Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy.]

The Pelbar Cycle takes place in the US, more than a thousand years after World War Three has devastated the world. Civilization endures in the form of small enclaves; some are made up of nomadic ‘barbarian’ tribesmen, while others are more settled. The Midwest remains sparsely populated and technologically backward compared to the East Coast.

Jestak, the hero of the story, is a young man who belongs to the Pelbar enclave. The Pelbar live in stone fortresses along the banks of the upper Mississippi River. Their society is matriarchal and inward-focused; secure in their fortresses, the Pelbar rarely interact with the barbarian tribes roaming the plains, and then only to trade goods during mutually observed Truce Weeks.

As ‘Northwall’ opens Jestak has elected to rebel – in an understated way – from the strictures of the matriarchy governing Pelbarigan, the largest and most powerful of the stone fortresses of the Pelbar nation. Jestak finds his way up the river to Northwall, the smaller of the Pelbar fortresses, and one whose leader, the so-called Protector, is less orthodox in her attitudes towards interacting with the world.

When Jestak proposes a mission to travel to the territory formerly known as Colorado, there to rescue a young woman enslaved by the Emeri tribe, the Protector gives assent. But as Jestak and his companions from the nomadic Shumal tribe set out for the country of the Emeri, unknown to them, an invasion force made up of the ruthless Tantal of the Great Lakes has embarked upon the Mississippi. Their goal: subjugation of the Pelbar. And the Tantal have weapons that the Pelbar, in their seemingly impregnable stone fortresses, have never before encountered……..

‘The Breaking of Northwall’ is a well-written, fast-moving story. While I can’t say it’s particularly imaginative in terms of using the traditional post-apocalyptic setting of a devastated, far-future USA, author Williams elects to model the nomadic tribes – which are comprised of whites – with the attitudes and spiritual beliefs of the American Indians, which gives the novel’s sociological and anthropological themes additional depth not usually found in an adventure novel.

For a novel published in 1981 – a period during which sf as a genre was doggedly recycling tired New Wave tropes - ‘The Breaking of Northwall’ is noteworthy for its readability. I recommend this as one of the better sf novels of the early 80s.

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