The Zona by Nathan Yocum is a striking, fierce, powerhouse of a book. Post-apocalyptic Arizona ("the Zona") is a beautifully described setting: bleak, depressing, oppressive and stark; the people who populate the Zona, likewise, are downtrodden, living a hardscrabble life. They call their era the "Broken Times," and that is the strong impression that the reader is left with -- the world is broken, and savage, and short on hope. As one of the characters says, "Peaceful men don't live anymore. Good men don't live any more. We're just winding down the clock until the Earth finishes us all off with weather and viruses or we finish ourselves with our own viciousness."
Our guide through this harsh, Wild-West world is Lead (named after his military division, Lead Group Two). Lead is a Preacher, an enforcer for the Zona's iron-fisted Theocracy; his job is to unquestioningly stamp out dissention by hunting down those who the Church have marked as troublemakers. When a Preacher tracks down a Mark, he gives them the Church's choice of rope or blanket -- to be tied with rope, and taken back to the Church for punishment, or to be shot dead and covered with a blanket.
At the beginning of the book Lead comes across as an arrogant, hard, instrument of the Church. However, as a series of life-changing encounters unfold, we see that he has a conscience and (even more surprisingly), a capacity for hope and joy in living, despite the bleak circumstances of his existence. Consider this passage, as he is running for his life: "The winds shifted, the sands settled. Night had fallen and the stars stretched out to infinity, tracing their slow spiral through the moonless sky. Despite his many and varied travels, Lead had never seen the evening sky so radiant. It felt to him as though God were reaching out with hands that comforted and yet proved conclusively what a diminutive and insubstantial creature man is." Lead's metamorphosis is compelling, as is the strength and courage of the hard-working and oppressed ordinary citizens of the Zona. Though the author's vision of the future is bleak, there is also hope, and it is especially precious when held against the bleak environment.
I found the world of The Zona completely believable and engrossing. I also greatly enjoyed the characters that Lead encounters...even very secondary characters are vividly portrayed, and leave a strong impression. I just finished the story last night, but I have a feeling that The Zona will stick with me for a long time. Fingers crossed for more books based in this fascinating world.
Four & a half stars.