It did not surprise me to learn that Nathan Yocum, author of The Zona, is an award-winning screenwriter. As I was reading this, his debut novel, I could not stop picturing it as a movie. (I will honestly be very surprised if it isn’t optioned, especially with the popularity of dystopias generally and the upcoming Hunger Games specifically!)
Imagine: After being devastated by rains, floods, and drought, the United States as we know it collapses. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, are killed by the disasters, while rugees are rounded up and left in camps to die from one of many rampaging new illnesses. In the west, the Church rises up and establishes a theocracy to rule over what’s left of Arizona (aka Zona), Utah, New Mexico, and California. Their mission is to wipe out sin–by sending out Preachers and Crusaders to kill anyone the Church decrees to be a “sinner.” We follow Lead, a Preacher who begins to question the Church’s methods after meeting, and being saved by, a sinner.
Now I’ll be damned if that’s not a movie I’d go see! Luckily, the story works very well as a book, too, thanks to several factors: the atmosphere, the environment, and the journey.
I’ve already described the atmosphere a bit above, but Yocum really writes a realistic portrayal of people living under an oppressive regime. People are afraid–of the Church, of radiation, of starvation, of each other. Those who have managed to survive do so by scraping out a living from the harsh desert and avoiding the attention of the Preachers. Music and books are contraband; there is no art or culture to speak of. While the theocracy of Zona may provide society with some structure and discipline in the wake of collapse and anarchy, it is clearly fascist and concerned only with maintaining its power.
Secondly, the physical environment is practically its own character. You are never allowed to forget that the desert is an unlivable place, with heat, drought, insects, and poisonous creatures all conspiring to kill you. Journeys across the desert are realistically difficult, with characters becoming dehydrated, sunburned, injured, and even drugged. The descriptions of Lead and his companion’s thirst are especially powerful, and serve as a stark and physical reminder that humans are pretty fragile creatures, despite the Church’s talk of God’s salvation.
Finally, Lead’s journey from fugee to Preacher to wanderer is engaging from start to finish. While some aspects may be cliche–the older, wiser ex-Preacher, for example–the story was so engrossing I really didn’t mind. Lead’s story is that of a survivor, and I liked that Yocum didn’t shy away from what “nice” characters will do when faced with the end of the world. Lead gets nervous, makes mistakes, and hurts others–and I appreciated him as a flawed, but ultimately redeemed, character.
I also loved the ending, which was simultaneously uplifting and depressing. (Spoiler alert!) It reminded me, nicely, of the ending of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, wherein there are basically two ways to read it: one, Lead is dying and has a hallucination of a man leading him to freedom, or two, the man is really there and will actually save Lead. Open to interpretation? Love it.
Recommended for fans of dystopian literature, or for those who like book-to-movie adaptations!
I received The Zona for review from Curiosity Quills through NetGalley. The Zona is available as of February 15.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars