So many books are written every year, it’s inevitable that good stuff falls through the cracks. Sometimes, a book will do well when it first comes out, well enough to get follow-ups published, but will fade as the years go on, buried under the new. That seems to be the case for Paul O. Williams’s The Breaking of Northwall, the first book in what is now called The Pelbar Cycle, seven books set in the distant, post-apocalyptic future of the American Midwest.
Williams does some excellent world-building, grounding the whole thing in a reasonable reality. A thousand years after some kind of terrible, likely nuclear, war, the scattered survivors have begun to build civilization again. Three tribes, two nomadic warriors and one sedentary city-builders live in constant conflict along what was once the upper Mississippi River. Tradition and fear keep them fighting each other, keep them small and petty. That is, until Jestak returns from a failed mission to the distant, semi-fabled East. His mission may have failed, but Jestak comes back with a new goal, a goal that will change everything.
Williams manages to set a stage that feels very lived in. This is a world where things have been happening, cultures have history, people and families have history. Jestak walks onto the scene not as a naive kid who doesn’t understand anything, but as a veteran of many harrowing adventures who brings a new perspective to peoples stuck in ruts of tradition. I like reading about people who are smart and competent, not flawless, not perfect, but good at what they do. That is the case here. I also like when an author gives us characters who are neither wholly bad, nor wholly good. Even when a culture has a rot, like institutionalized slavery, individuals within the culture may try to rise above, to be a better person. Nothing is black & white; nothing is simple.
Like Drew Mendelson’s book Pilgrimage, I can’t help but hope that one day, this book will be rediscovered by someone with the power to get it in print. If I ran the zoo, I’d sure do it. I’m very interested in where the series goes. I’ve got the rest of the books, so I’ll get to them at some point. If you can find a copy, I highly recommend it.