I previously reviewed Sway's Demise by J. D. Harpley, who goes by Astral Scribe online. As far as independently published sci-fi literature goes, it is perhaps my favorite piece of work out there. I was impressed enough with Harpley’s work that I departed from my usual preference for hard military science fiction and picked up copies of Harpley’s other work, The Mill and Revolt, both part of the Verge of Desolation series. I’ve just finished The Mill a day after buying it (it’s a quick read), and bottom line up front, it was quite an enjoyable read.
Spoilers below if you keep reading, so be forewarned!
The story starts out with the main character Jen trudging her way through daily life in a world we’re quite familiar with. It’s actually rather dark, dealing quite heavily with the ideas of depression and suicide, and to some extent, drug use. Jen lives with her brother because she’s been suicidal in the past, and though she’s learned to hide those feelings from public view, she continues to struggle with them internally, feeling like a burden to those around her. These emotions come to a boil as her brother becomes engaged, making her feel ignored and without a place in life as she realizes she’ll have to move out. This drives her to finally commit suicide, stepping from the roof of her apartment building with more concern for not making a mess for those around her than for her own existence. It’s very tragic, but it does an excellent job of setting Jen up as a character we can be emotionally invested in throughout the story, as well as establishing the sort of development we hope to see by the end.
Setting her up as a character? What’s to set up if she just committed suicide? As it turns out, her leap from the tower is the inciting incident for the physical conflict of the novel. Her descent through the cold air teleports her safely into an alternate reality, and Jen awakes, quite confused, to the sight of an engineer named Hopper looting her body. At this point, I normally would have classified the story as something that didn’t really interest me, given my preference for accuracy, realism, and plausibility. But I also try to keep an open mind and give things outside my normal preferences a try. I’ve found they can sometimes be quite enjoyable, and with The Mill being written by an author whose writing I already enjoy, this story certainly fell within that category.
We discover that in this alternate reality, some mysterious entity or another (it’s never really explained) is running a mad house of crazy, grotesque, and manipulative experiments on unwilling human subjects. They acquire their subjects by kidnapping anyone left outside after nightfall. Coincidentally, Jen and Hopper (who becomes friendly after she realizes she wasn’t looting a dead body) are caught in the dark before they can make it back to town. Jen saves Hopper from capture by giving herself up to the prowling night patrols, and she is deposited into The Mill for a rather horrid experiment.
As you might guess, the rest of the story entails Jen’s escape, but I’ll let you read the book to find out how that happens. We also see Hopper later on in the story trying to rescue Jen, which brings me to my first critique. The character setup and development for Jen was amazing. She seemed like a real person, and I felt I was painted a quality picture of who she was as a person. I can’t say the same for Hopper. We saw very little of the story from her perspective, and it wasn’t enough for me to understand her. When we did read from her perspective, she felt more like a plot device moving the story forward rather than a person with underlying motivations. This was compounded upon when her personality seemed to shift quite rapidly from a loyal friend, to a remorseless killer, and right back again.
Now this may be in part due to how quickly the latter half of the story seemed to move. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half. It seemed to have the appropriate pacing for the length of the story, and I felt eager to find out what would happen next. But the second half felt like it moved a bit too rapidly without enough detail or perhaps challenge. The climax had me feeling as though the characters weren’t being challenged enough, despite what they might be explicitly saying about their circumstances. In short, it wasn’t always convincing.
But the real story wasn’t the physical events the characters went through. Those traumas were simply experiences which developed Jen and helped her overcome her own internal conflicts. They gave her a reason to see the value in living, as well as a goal for which she can strive. We didn’t reach our resolution when Jen escaped the laboratory, or when she returned to her own reality. We reached our resolution when she stepped away from the ledge; when she told off her brother and his fiancé; when she made the decision to set off on her own and take charge of her life. That’s what made The Mill enjoyable for me.