SPFBO Status: Semifinalist
Overview (No Spoilers):
“This story is about choices. It’s about the choices we make, and why we make them, and how they touch the lives of others. And the reason I’m telling you this story is that we still have important choices to make.”
The Nothing Within by Andy Giesler is certainly about choices, a brilliantly plotted tale about finding one’s own strength and choosing the path that leads to the best version of tomorrow. This novel is outstanding from top to bottom with an intriguing premise, fantastic structure, and illustrative writing.
The book tells the story of Root, a young blind girl growing up in the post-apocalyptic World That Is, a circle of land in north central Ohio physically separated from the rest of the world after the biotechnical meltdown of the Reckoning. Populated by the descendants of the area’s Amish community and the few others that survived, the people of the World That Is thrive on tradition and simplicity, shunning any new technological advancement and culling curiosity and difference with the Goodafter Pit. This is a problem for young Root, who is both curious and different, placing her on a collision course with her village. As Root grows, she begins to uncover some of the secrets of her world and the groups that inhabit it, as well as the history of the community’s traditions, some of which have gone terribly awry. When the Nothing Within awakens in Root, her world is turned upside down as she goes searching for the truth. Throw in some monstrous chimeras and mysterious ancient biotechnology, and the book quickly becomes unputdownable, a page-turner you’ll be reading into the wee hours of the night.
The Nothing Within has a unique narrative structure, jumping from conversations between pre-Reckoning biotech creators Morton and Aura Lee, the journal chronicles of Amish Ruth Troyer detailing the Reckoning and its immediate consequences, and centuries post-Reckoning Root storytelling about her youth. In addition, there are chapters of “Good-old Stories” (myths or fables from this community), songs, rhymes, and “True-old Stories,” each adding layers of meaning and sophistication to the tale Giesler is spinning. If this sounds confusing, it really isn’t during the reading experience; Geisler utilizes these storylines masterfully, revealing just the right amount of information in each chapter to build suspense and keep the reader turning the pages to find out more. As details from each time period begin to fit together, clicking in like pieces of a puzzle, the picture appears of what really happened before, during, and after the Reckoning, leaving the reader to smile and nod “Ah!” at the cleverness of the tale’s structure.
“A child born without sight had her toes dangling over the edge of the Goodafter Pit, even if charity compelled folks to tolerate her.”
Not only is the plot construction a masterpiece, but Giesler is also an excellent writer; I often found myself stopping to highlight beautifully written language or passages that made me smile. Giesler’s writing style makes it easy to picture his scenes, even when Root herself is describing them, blind though she may be. Root’s vernacular and colloquialisms are unique and feel authentic; I could hear her voice clearly in my head and I found myself chuckling as she recounts her adventures with creative literary devices and colorful language. Additionally, the dialogue is top-notch and interesting; each character has their own clear voice and mannerisms.
Now, I’ll admit, Giesler couldn’t have found a more perfect reader than me for this tale. Born and raised in the farmland just west of north central Ohio, with family in the region, I was fully drawn into Giesler’s setting. I also have a strong preference for independent female characters who do more than pine about a love interest, which this book has in spades. I’m a sucker for fantastic writing, and here, again, Giesler delivers beyond my expectations. Additionally, I tend to prefer my tales with violence lightly done as opposed to described in gory detail. Despite this incidental stacking of the deck, I contend that any reader who picks up The Nothing Within will thoroughly enjoy their time, getting sucked into Root’s World That Is and the task of untangling the truth about how the world could so quickly go awry.
Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound):
- I found echoes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in the story, this idea that tradition can take hold over logic and reason. Just as the stones are cast on the unfortunate recipient of a spot in that story, so are people killed in the Goodafter pit for no more reason than physical or mental illness.
- What happened to the rest of the Strays in Ruth Troyer’s days? Did they eventually meld with the community or become outcasts?
- The chapter with Woodsmith Abram and Root talking about colors made me smile and chuckle to myself. It’s really just a feel-good kind of scene.
- What will happen as Root and the other curious-minded explore the Void? Did anyone (or thing) else survive the Reckoning?
- I almost want to read the story again, now that I know how the Reckoning unfolds so I can look for the clues and hints Giesler drops along the way.
Descant– a melody or counterpoint sung above the plainsong of the tenor
Vivisection -the cutting of or operation on a living animal usually for physiological or pathological investigation