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Book Review / By the Feet of Men

It's somewhat disturbing to read a dystopia that seems much more tolerable than real life currently.

Alright, just joking...mostly...but the dystopic genre certainly seems to be ever more relevant (or evermore reality), and so I never pass up the chance to read a new adult book (as opposed to one of the classics) in the genre. By the Feet of Men is stark, tightly written, gritty and driven (pardon the pun). In a post-apocalyptic vision our two Runners, Cassady and Ghazi, transport and trade in the former's old truck, Warspite (or "the Old Lady"), across the desolated landscape around the Alps. The possibility of attack is ripe, and every town offers a new danger. But when they arrive at the grimy town of Prestige, they're offered a job transporting dynamite for a religious community who wish to forge a temple. Good pay, not too taxing. They take it - problem is, the job is a ploy to get Cassady on lead for a much harder, much more important mission - to deliver essential medical supplies to a secret scientific community looking for a cure to a deadly illness. Thing is, Cassady's close to losing his nerve, and that could jeopardise the whole thing.

By the Feet of Men focuses tightly on the journey of Cassady and Ghazi through their dwindling world, and doesn't jump around the myriad other possible areas it might have. This isn't a failure, indeed, it allows a feeling of both intimacy in their journey, and also separation from the rest of the world, where runners are merely the veins that feed the organs and exist, in a way, in their own world, and are relied upon because of that. There's not too much focus on what is called the "Change" (which is suggested to be a Global Warming catastrophe, and so I'm glad it wasn't dwelled upon as this trope in general is tired), and it stands primarily as the set-up for the broken world and the first plot point of Cassady and Ghazi's run, allowing the reader to explore life in the story on the level of a restricted handful trying to survive it. It's great to hear or see snippets about things that are going on elsewhere - the Koalition, the revolution, secret facilities, etc. - that gave a landscape lacking hope perhaps a glimmer of it, but maybe just a little out of reach.

I really enjoyed the distinction between Cassady and Ghazi. The former older, more experienced, fiercely loyal and fiercely suspicious one. He runs on instinct, and he's definitely someone you want in a crisis. The latter is younger, less experienced, not disloyal but certainly thinks mostly with his head than his heart. The two complement each other, and allow the reader to learn more about them through their honest conversations, but it also means that when the proverbial manure hits the fan the outcome can be devastating when they each want different things. The writer has done an excellent job in allowing both them to be human, certainly to multiple faults, and make decisions that are understandable from both sides. Their relationship is heavily tested along the way, good and bad, the former desperate to do everything he can to protect and save everyone on the rough road, and Ghazi less inclined, thinking more objectively, and what seems sometimes more coldly.

This limited POV allowed us to focus entirely on the journey, on which the two are joined by six others, some experienced, some not so much. The conflict within the group in general and with the new boys, Victor and Tagawa, was particularly compelling, and allowed exploration into conflict and co-operation of the older and younger generations, even in a time of extreme uncertainty. I really enjoyed that particular arc, and also the balance of the calm and agreeable nature of Katerina, and the brash and determined one of her driving buddy, Hearst.

Overall, the character-driven narrative allows us to experience the journey through the isolated, sometimes terrifying, and certainly, in many ways, exciting trek, whilst supporting the feeling of entrapment in the world they had been left after the Change. The only reason that this wasn't a full five rating, was the fact that, though Cassady is on the edge of what would essentially be a breakdown, I never felt he was quite beyond the line and had to drag himself back. Though there were some harrowing moments, and severe conflict, Cassady never quite lost his nerve, and so didn't quite have me on edge as to whether he'd break or not and so I wasn't too worried about him not being able to complete his task. However, the gradual decline in Cassady's health during the run was something that gave rise to whether or not he'd be able to get through the run, and so added to the sense of urgency. The conclusion was satisfying, and as with other snippets in the story - and as most good dystopias allow - we don't know what happens after the culmination of our heroes' journey, and whether the choices made ended up being right for them.

All in all, a read that is well worth it, that held my attention, and that I got through almost the whole way in one read (as pesky life got in the way). I look forward to reading further works by this author in the future.


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