TheBookSmugglers's Reviews > White Horse

White Horse by Alex Adams
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's review
May 17, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: apocalypse-dystopia-keepers

Originally reviewed on The Book Smugglers

Zoe Marshall wakes up one day and discovers that a strange jar (actually more of a classical pot) is in her apartment. The jar is the color of scorched cream and fills Zoe with a sense of dread. She does not touch it. She does not open it. Instead, she leaves it where it is and goes to therapy, for fear that she is hallucinating or losing her mind.

By day, thirty year old Zoe Marshall is a janitor, a cleaning woman that is content with her simple job mopping floors and cleaning rat cages at Pope Pharmaceuticals. The job is to make money until she can go back to college one day, and in the meantime it's rewarding enough - as Zoe says when asked, the job is gratifying. Things are dirty, and she makes them clean.

After the jar appears in her apartment, Zoe notices that things are starting to change. People are getting sick - throwing up violently for weeks before their bodies begin to change, mutating into something no longer human. The majority of humankind is killed by this mysterious disease, dying as their bodies reject the mutation.

"White Horse" ravages the planet, decimating almost everything in its path, leaving only three groups of people. There are those who have died.

There are those few survivors, like Zoe, who inexplicably seem immune to White Horse in its deadly traipse around the globe.

And finally, there are those who have contracted the disease, but do not die. These men and women's bodies adapt to the mutation and change into something horrifying, unknown, and post-human; nightmares with snakes for hair, bodies that meld to the ground, spines that elongate with tails, necks that grow gills, monsters that crave live, twitching, warm flesh.

The world ends, and Zoe is one of the few left alive in a world where humans have become obsolete, and monsters roam. On a desperate, solo mission to a remote location in Greece, Zoe crosses the globe to find someone, to stay human, and to keep hope alive.

Alex Adams' debut novel, White Horse is preceded by a pretty significant amount of hype - comparisons to McCarthy and Collins are not to be doled out lightly, for fear that the book will fall short of the hype machine's frequent tendency towards hyperbole. In the case of White Horse, the hype machine is at least half-right, and Ms. Adams' novel certainly shares many aspects with The Road, including a harrowing journey story across a devastated world in which brutality rules. In truth, White Horse is also similar to another apocalyptic novel that released this year: Julianna Baggott's Pure . In Ms. Baggott's novel, the world ended in a bang with Detonations that fused humans to things closest to them, and in White Horse, we see mutations ravaging mankind in much of the same way.

The other half of the comparison, to the ubiquitous The Hunger Games however, is completely baseless. Make no mistake, while White Horse will certainly appeal to readers of apocalyptic fiction and horror regardless of age, a crossover novel it certainly isn't. This is in no way shape or form anything even remotely resembling The Hunger Games - and that is not a bad thing

White Horse is a beautifully executed novel that does not need the mega-blockbuster sales handle; on its own, Ms. Adams' first in a trilogy stands strong. I love the actual structure of the book, as it flips between THEN and NOW, building tension and relaying Zoe's tale in two parallel storylines. There are wonderful, shocking reveals throughout, and I like that sense of blurry haze coming into crystalline focus as Zoe's past and present converge. Ms. Adams also has a distinctive writing style, which can be interpreted as grating or brilliant - you take your pick. Metaphors and similes abound, cadence is clipped and unpredictable, and ultimately the reading experience of White Horse is...unpredictable. Meandering. Odd. For example:
That the lie rolls off my tongue without tripping over my teeth is a miracle.

Somewhere in between then and now, geology went crazy and drove the weather to schizophrenia.

This is not the country where gleeful tourists toss coins into the Trevi Fountain, nor do people flock to the Holy See anymore. Oh, at first they rushed in like sickle cells forced through a vein, thick, clotted masses aboard trains and planes, toting their life savings, willing to give it all to the church for a shot at salvation. Now their corpses litter the streets of Vatican City and spill into Rome.

My natural inclination is to rebel violently against this type of prose, but I cannot deny that Ms. Adams's style is memorable. I might not love the writing, but I can appreciate its execution and ultimately it kept me reading. That's saying something.*

The other compelling, thought-provoking part of the novel is the examination of female characters - though again, one's mileage may vary. Ms. Adams' portrayal of women can be interpreted as either quietly subversive, or demeaning. I'd like to think it's the former, as Zoe is an incredibly strong character, vested in preserving what vestiges of humanity remain, and hers is a tale of hope in an ugly world. There are other characters, however, that don't fare nearly as well and I'm not sure how I feel about these different archetypes. There's a young blind girl, raped by those closest to her and then eager to please and be accepted in any twisted facsimile of love. There's the kindhearted, matronly Irina, who is introduced into the plot solely to save Zoe when she needs saving.

And then, there's The Swiss. One of the major twists at the end is crazy ridiculous, when we learn what is motivating this particular bogeyman of a character. I don't want to delve into spoilers, but I have a hard time swallowing The Swiss's descent into madness and the cause for his sadistic cruelty and misogyny.

This said, I did love that Zoe's story ends with hope and love, as opposed to the cruel brutality that characterizes most of the rest of the narrative.** I was under the impression upon starting this book that White Horse was a standalone novel, but apparently book 1 in a trilogy. For all its particular quirks and things that rubbed me the wrong way, there's something undeniably compelling and magnetic about this story, and I am eager to see what happens nest.

* On a completely nitpicky note, I really hated the reference to the item in Zoe's apartment as a "jar". I know. It's a not-so-thinly-veiled allusion to Pandora's box (which we know is actually Pandora's jar). But in our modern vernacular, this "jar" would be referred to as a vase or a pot, and "jar" equates to jam jar in my mind. I digress, and maybe I'm the only one that feels strongly about this, but when Zoe continually refers to the "jar" that fills her with fear, I kept imagining a mason jar of Smucker's in the middle of her living room.

**On another nitpicky note, that last line of the ARC is ridiculously cheesy. It's a personal pet peeve, and I know it won't bother everyone - but to me a bad last line can be infuriating. Also see 500 Days of Summer.

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