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Review: Rootless by Chris Howard

by ◊ 2 years ago 0 Comment Switch View

17-year-old Banyan is a tree builder. Using scrap metal and salvaged junk, he creates forests for rich patrons who seek a reprieve from the desolate landscape. Although Banyan’s never seen a real tree—they were destroyed more than a century ago—his father used to tell him stories about the Old World. But that was before his father was taken . . .

Everything changes when Banyan meets a woman with a strange tattoo—a clue to the whereabouts of the last living trees on earth, and he sets off across a wasteland from which few return. Those who make it past the pirates and poachers can’t escape the locusts—the locusts that now feed on human flesh.

But Banyan isn’t the only one looking for the trees, and he’s running out of time. Unsure of whom to trust, he’s forced to make an uneasy alliance with Alpha, an alluring, dangerous pirate with an agenda of her own. As they race towards a promised land that might only be a myth, Banyan makes shocking discoveries about his family, his past, and how far people will go to bring back the trees.

-Cover art and description courtesy of goodreads.

Atmospheric Analysis: Yes, this cover looks identical to a whole bunch of vector art over on deviantart. However, I love deviantart’s vector art section. This is an eye-catching, appropriate, and cool cover. I’m a fan.

Planetary Class: Rootless is firmly a post-apocalyptic title, dealing with ecological collapse and its long-felt aftermath.

Mohs Rating: Rootless is an earnest exploration of the impact of genetically modifying foodcrops, rating this as a 5 for speculative science, however . . .

Viability Rating: . . . the premise is taken to some absurd extremes. The central argument in Rootless is a fairly polarizing one, and I suspect its effectiveness will vary according to how readers feel about GMOs.

Xenolinguistical Assessment: Rootless is voicey, effective first-person YA. The linguistic conceit (Banyan’s easy voice) is perhaps a little more heavily felt at the novel’s outset, but it’s a strong voice that resonates throughout the story.

Expanded Report: It took me a bit of time to decide how I felt about Rootless, Chris Howard’s debut YA post-apocalyptic novel. On the one hand, it’s an expertly crafted story, cohesive and fully formed in the way that many YA novels aren’t. On the other, the novel is at times formulaic–and this includes the novel’s central anti-GMO argument.

Like Jessica Khoury’s recent debut OriginRootless is essentially science-fiction-as-a-cautionary tale. This anti-science theme is more narrow than that found in Origin, specifically one which argues that scientific tinkering with foodcrops could potentially lead to Horrible Things (if it hasn’t already), but the through line is pretty much the same: nature good, mankind and his nature-bending ways, bad bad bad.

And it’s not as if there isn’t something to Howard’s argument. Genetic engineering of foodstuffs, the resultant lack of biodiversity, the race between herbivores and companies which aim to protect our crops from them–all of these are admittedly problematic. And Howard handles them with a fair deal of deftness in the novel’s core premise: in the future, superlocusts develop in response to genetically modified, pest-resistant corn. These locusts quickly blanket the world, even consuming animal flesh after all plant life but this corn are gone. The nature and impact of this apocalypse are well-explored. It’s a creepy, atmospheric world, and an interesting premise. Regardless of your feelings toward GMOs, Howard’s setting is fascinating and complex.

And nicely explored through Banyan, our teenaged, everyman hero. His tale is essentially a picaresque as he seeks to find the world’s last trees–and his long-lost father–and, on the way, accrues a motley band of associates. My favorite was easily Alpha, mohawked love interest and spitfire of a girl. I was a little less enamored of Howard’s slightly stereotypical Rastafarian characters, but the diversity (and presence of religion at all) was still refreshing.

Howard hits the beats of Banyan’s story perfectly–perhaps a little too perfectly. This is storytelling right out of the Blake Snyder school, and everything happens exactly when and how it should. This leads to a nice sense of cohesion, but also one of predictability. Howard is clearly a capable storyteller, and it would have been nice had he subverted the narrative structure now and then.

And in a way, this was my problem with the story’s ultimate conclusion. The horrors escalate, and are appropriately horrific, but at the same time somewhat predictably so–and they surpassed the bounds of credulity for me. Rootless quickly becomes a (slightly absurd) mad scientist story, with all the nuance you might expect. By the end of the story, Howard is making countless appeals to nature, including one passage where he extols the virtues of malus sieversii, a wild apple which is the ancestor of our domestic apples:

The apple tree was a rare kind even before the Darkness. It grew in mountains in far off places. Malus sieversii. A type of wild apple that had grown for a long time unaltered, before people knew how to mess with such things.

This is a slightly problematic argument; though malus sieversii (and other wild apples) are sometimes edible, any apples we eat are created via grafting due to the lack of genetic predictability of apples from generation to generation. You can plant apple seeds, but there’s no guarantee that the tree that grows will produce edible fruit. Therefore, almost all apples that we eat are the way they are due to human intervention.

I suspect Howard would argue that this is a bad thing–his post on the science of Rootless suggests a sort of weariness about all human intervention in the natural order of things. But I found it to be an argument without nuance–nuance that teen readers are certain capable of handling. This argument will find supporters, of course, but also detractors. I asked a plant biologist colleague about the argument here and she replied in exasperation:

This is an insanely complicated issue, and it’s something that’s going to be exceedingly important to the future of humanity, particularly with changing climates and increasing populations: food is going to become a bigger and bigger problem. And it’s infuriating the way that the current ag-bio industrial complex is set up because no one seems to think that it’s important enough to put enough money towards basic research. Plant labs are under-funded as it is, so a lot of researchers wind up going to Dow or Bayer or Monsanto with their hats in their hands so they can keep doing this research. And this fear-mongering isn’t helping to get anything done. No one talks about golden rice (which is a GMO), because all everyone wants to talk about is Bt corn.

Unfortunately, Howard just doesn’t treat the issue with complexity. And while the story is in so many ways strong–interesting, with a rich setting and vivid voice–the way it hinges on the issue will make it a hard nut (apple?) to swallow for some readers, including this one.

Rootless is out now and is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local indie bookstore.

About the Author


Phoebe North is a twenty-something writer of YA speculative fiction. She lives in New York State with her husband and cat (who may be the most intelligent being in her household). Visit her website at View all posts by Phoebe »

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