SPSFC Book Review: “What Branches Grow” by T.S. Beier

The SPSFC started with 300 books and narrowed it down to 30 semi-finalists. I’ll be reviewing every semi-finalist, as well as several books from other group’s slush piles that looked interesting to me.

What Branches Grow by T.S. Beier

The United States appears to be an apocalyptic, burned out husk at the beginning of Where Branches Grow. The action starts in Churchill, a town named after its vicious mayor, Church. Gennero, a guard who works for Mayor Church, is confronted by his own humanity and inhumanity when he meats Delia, a woman crossing the wasteland in search of a forlorn hope.

Beier presents a cynical yet realistic look at the various ways people would react in such circumstances, and Church is a prime example. He fully embraces slavery (until forced to abandon it), near-slavery, forced prostitution (seemingly including minors), uses violence with casual ease, and more. The world is certainly a grim place, and as a reader I could almost feel the grit, grime, and disgusting morals seeping in as I read the book. Church is not the only example as time and again the main characters encounter new challenges and atrocities in a wasted landscape. Religion used for oppression rears its ugly head, though there is a surprising depth to some of the discussion surrounding religion in the post-apocalypse.

Delia and Gennero are the stars here, though they start to grab a ragtag group of characters who come and go, fading in and out of the story in ways of varying importance as the story goes on. The plot doesn’t ever drag, which is impressive given the 400+ page length of the novel. Beier keeps the action moving and when she does slow down for character development, it works well without becoming too slow. That’s another major strength of the novel, as I’ve found post-apocalyptic stories can sometimes get bogged down in lengthy scenes of depressing waste or destruction. Yes, there’s plenty of that here, but Beier either has it play out in ways that show direct impact on the characters or has enough action to accompany it that it never feels too much like a drag.

My own enjoyment of the novel was impacted some by the occasional scenes or descriptions of violence and sexual violence. Beier doesn’t get too detailed–usually–but the relentlessly dark feel of most of the novel becomes pretty depressing eventually. One character late in the book brings some much-needed comic relief, but it’s almost too little, too late at that point. Another difficulty I had with the novel was the way some of the characters developed. It’s not that they were unbelievable, per se, but much of the development was a tad too predictable from the beginning. I’m a reader who avoids trying to guess what’s going to happen (I like to just enjoy the ride), and I still saw several of the twists coming before they hit. That took away some of the impact, though Beier’s characters are well done overall.

What Branches Grow is a great read for fans of post-apocalyptic stories with a dark bent. Beier writes with skill that makes the novel something fans of sci-fi more generally will enjoy, as well.

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