The World We Make by Matthew S. Cox

Front cover of The World We Make by Matthew S. CoxCox fuses the frontier narratives of the Old West with technological and social fragments from the Twenty-First Century and the possible longer-term effects of nuclear war, creating a plausible portrayal of a real post-apocalyptic settlement.

This novel is the sixth in the Evergreen series. Risk of spoiler contamination beyond this point.

In the year since nuclear strikes shattered the United States, Evergreen has changed from a random gathering of locals and refugees into a community that can plan for the future; and Harper has become a respected part of it. However, not everyone who survived the apocalypse has embraced hope and mutual assistance, and—even with some efforts at sustaining modern technology bearing fruit—a mostly nineteenth-century level of medicine makes even what were trivial injuries dangerous. And, to make matters worse, the long-term effects of nuclear strikes stretch well beyond the edges of the radiation.

Cox continues his exploration of a realistic post-apocalyptic world: after a year, the products of complex manufacturing processes have all but broken down or run out, reducing most of Evergreen to American Frontier levels; however, the residents have not lost skills or knowledge originating from the modern world, so some technology that could have been created or maintained in the Wild West but wasn’t because it hadn’t been discovered still works or is being worked on. Similarly, people whose selfish behaviour was constrained by the fear of the state have now become criminals and raiders, but have become the lone bandits and gangs of cowboy stories and not leather-clad road pirates. While this means a significant portion of the plot is a slower-burning survival narrative rather than fast-paced action, as Cox’s skilled evocation reveals, even a partial regression to frontier days make the world much more dangerous than the modern Western life most of the characters (and readers) are used to, creating a sustained threat that might be more tense than facing cannibal mutants.

Where Cox had Harper worry about the lack of modern medicine or showed minor characters suffering, he brings it to the forefront in this novel by both having Harper’s sister fall grievously ill and having her best friend give birth.

However, the series has not become purely a story about Harper, and other modern-day US residents, facing the daily travails of surviving without cutting-edge logistics, manufacturing, and medicine: there are also bursts of action similar to the more immediate dangers of the earlier volumes. While the threat to Harper’s life and those of her new family make these feel dangerous enough, Cox highlights the fragility of what civilization remains by confronting Harper with people she knew from before who chose ended up joining a raider gang rather than finding a settlement.

With the balance of long-term effort and faster-paced struggle slanted considerably more toward the former than in early volumes, this novel does feel slower; however, for most readers who have continued this far, the greater focus on the lives of the characters rather than exceptional circumstances is unlikely to be a downside.

One issue that might confuse or distract avid fans of the series is the first anniversary itself: it features as a minor plot thread in this book but was also mentioned in the first edition of book five, the events of which otherwise take place before this volume, as having happened. Although Cox does include an note at the end explaining his decision to expand the anniversary and has made revisions to the previous book accordingly, this is at the end of the novel rather than the beginning.

Harper remains a well-crafted protagonist who has literally matured during the series. While she is fully aware that she is not the same teenager who couldn’t bring herself to shoot people, Cox’s description of what she does and how the inhabitants of Evergreen treat her shows a greater maturity and respect that she is aware of, creating a highly plausible image of how self-image is often inaccurate.

The supporting cast possess the same nuance shown in previous volumes with returning characters displaying the same mix of realistic change in the face of circumstance and fundamental consistency that Harper does, and new characters each displaying a blend of strengths and limitations.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a realistic portrait of clinging to civilisation after an apocalyptic event.

I received a free copy from the author with no request for a review.

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