Author ~ TJ Klune
Publisher ~ DSP Publications
Published ~ 19 April 2016
Genre ~ Dystopian M/M Romance, Science Fiction
Once upon a time, humanity could no longer contain the rage that swelled within, and the world ended in a wave of fire.
One hundred years later, in the wasteland formerly known as America, a broken man who goes only by the name of Cavalo survives. Purposefully cutting himself off from what remains of civilization, Cavalo resides in the crumbling ruins of the North Idaho Correctional Institution. A mutt called Bad Dog and a robot on the verge of insanity comprise his only companions. Cavalo himself is deteriorating, his memories rising like ghosts and haunting the prison cells.
It’s not until he makes the dangerous choice of crossing into the irradiated Deadlands that Cavalo comes into contact with a mute psychopath, one who belongs to the murderous group of people known as the Dead Rabbits. Taking the man prisoner, Cavalo is forced not only to face the horrors of his past, but the ramifications of the choices made for his stark present. And it is in the prisoner that he will find a possible future where redemption is but a glimmer that darkly shines.
The world has died.
This is the story of its remains.
TJ Klune is one of the finest writers working today – and I don’t mean “finest writers in gay fiction”. I mean in all fiction. In his short bio in “Withered and Sere”, the author bemoans the fact that he still works in an insurance office, but I suspect he’s being disingenuous. With a talent like his, Mr. Klune doesn’t have to work in an office, or anywhere else except at his keyboard, because what he is able to accomplish combining even the most pedestrian of words in the English language is nothing short of miraculous.
And there has never been a more perfect example than this difficult, dark, challenging book. Mr. Klune has made his reputation mixing outrageous humor with deep pathos and compassion. Whether it’s the charming love-filled family of “Bear Otter and the Kid”, the over-the-top best-drag-queen-in-America in “The Queen and the Homo Jock King”, the slightly overweight Paul in “Tell Me It’s Real”, or the amazing young fantasy wizard who gives Harry Potter a run for his money (but with much more humor) in “The Lightning-Struck Heart”, each and every book he publishes moves, intrigues, and above all, impresses with its brilliant use of language in the service of painting some of the most vivid scenes and characters in literature.
And then there is “Withered and Sere”. This book is an absolute departure from all that has come before. There’s virtually no humor in this book, and even less sex (though the main character is Bi). There’s none of Mr. Klune’s trademark lightheartedness to leaven the pain and loneliness of his characters. This is a dark, dark book, but still notable for the pure art of its evocative writing. This book is nothing short of pure genius.
“Withered + Sere” is a post-apocryphal, post-nuclear, challenging and soul-searing novel – or at least the first half of a huge novel. Mr. Klune makes it abundantly clear in the afterword that this book, despite its three-hundred-and-fifty pages, is just the introduction, part one of a two-part epic. Fortunately, he also assures us that the other half is already written, so it will be available sooner than later, which is something devoutly to be wished.
Mr. Klune creates not just his characters and settings, but a whole world. His world is not a fun place, and doesn’t feature much hope. It is several hundred years after the nuclear holocaust, and people are still dying of radiation poisoning. Most meaningful technology is gone, including such rudimentary tools as telephones and automobiles. The husks of the devices from “Before” are occasionally found or seen, but they rarely, if ever, work. Communities have sprung up, mostly to ensure survival – to pool resources and labor and to fight the marauding bands of human animals who kill and eat the innocent – the ‘Dead Rabbits’, a paramilitary organization whose métier is murder and burning.
One of their victims is our hero, Cavalo. Yes, just Cavalo. He once had another name, but no longer, since the ‘Dead Rabbits’ destroyed his family, caused the death of his wife and son. What Cavalo has now, is his own little band of three – him, his loyal and protective dog, “Mad Dog” with whom he carries on complex two-way conversations, and a still-working robot, SIRS, a remnant of “Before” that Cavalo found when he moved into the ruins of a Federal Prison. No one but Cavalo can hear Bad Dog. SIRS is beginning to fall apart, and as he does, he becomes more human, doing his own ‘Pinocchio’ thing, and beginning to feel affection, loyalty and protective impulses for Cavalo.
In fact, it’s entirely possible they’re all mad. Cavalo has become more and more violent, and feared, as the years pass. He’s killed more than forty people, all of whom, of course, needed killing, but he takes their lives without remorse – before they can take his. So much has been taken from him that a threat to the little he has left leaves him in a blood-red rage which feeds near-super-human strength and speed.
The nearest town is Cottonwood, a place where he briefly lived. He made friends there, good people, but he couldn’t stay. He couldn’t let the evil hold his connections over his head. He couldn’t live with the leverage that human relationships gave to those who would take what is his. So he moved to the prison (not far away) and became a legend, both respected and feared in Cottonwood.
Then something changed. A new force is added to the equation. A young, beautiful but terrifying “Dead Rabbit” that Cavalo captures out in the woods. The boy is just twenty, but has seen (and perhaps perpetrated) unbelievable horror in his short life. His throat has been cut. A mighty scar bisects his neck, and he is mute, with his voice box cut. Yet Lucas can communicate with Cavalo even as he tries to kill him and escape. Cavalo has come to regret that he did not dispatch Lucas when he first met him, but he can’t. You see, Cavalo’s dead son lured him to find Lucas. That innocent laughing boy, gone for almost nine years now, teased his father out of hiding and into the path of the “Dead Rabbit” boy, and there must have been a reason.
You will find out what that reason is before this first book is done – at least some of the reason. “Withered + Sere” introduces the characters, the world, the back story, the wholesale violence and the hope that lingers just beyond it. The good people may not be so good, and the ‘Psycho Bulldog’, Lucas, if not good, is at very least supremely important. The robot, being a robot, is neither good nor bad. He is, after all, just programmed.
I’m surprised that I was so enraptured by a book so dark, so negative, so decidedly unsexy and unfamiliar. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It is, after all, a book by TJ Klune, an author who has never written a bad book, never stumbled over an awkward phrase, never presented a character who was less then perfectly developed. And therein lays the joy of this otherwise violent book, so lacking in hope – some of the best writing I’ve ever read. Do not kid yourself, “Withered + Sere” is a great book. It is not just fiction, it is literature, a true work of art whose words and characters soar, whose authenticity imprints them on your soul. Are the characters mad? Are they “gifted”, hearing things no normal mortals can? Are they the dregs of a dead world, or the promise of a new one? All that, and more, lives between the covers of this remarkable epic. I can’t wait for the second book. TJ Klune gleefully and maddeningly rubs in the cliffhanger that ends the book, but softens the blow with the first chapter of the next one. It reads even better, if possible.
Don’t miss “Withered + Sere”. It is a brilliant opportunity to see a master at work, a world-class wordsmith plying his trade and honing his art - the fulfillment of the promise of a stunningly talented author.
Meet TJ Klune
When TJ Klune was eight, he picked up a pen and paper and began to write his first story (which turned out to be his own sweeping epic version of the video game Super Metroid—he didn't think the game ended very well and wanted to offer his own take on it. He never heard back from the video game company, much to his chagrin). Now, two decades later, the cast of characters in his head have only gotten louder, wondering why he has to go to work as a claims examiner for an insurance company during the day when he could just stay home and write.
He lives with a neurotic cat in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It’s hot there, but he doesn’t mind. He dreams about one day standing at Stonehenge, just so he can say he did.