White Horse is the first book in what will eventually be a trilogy. Often in trilogies (notwithstanding Star Wars episodes IV-VI), the first installment is the strongest, and the other two ride the coattails of the their successor’s innovation, to varying degrees of success. Though it’s impossible to say for sure at this point, Alex Adams’ White Horse feels like exactly the opposite: the precursor to something much bigger and better than is contained within its own pages. That said, what is there is enough to substantiate the book in its own right and make a reader eager for more.
White Horse is the name of the disease that wipes out most of the population and turns many of the survivors into mutants. In her old life, our protagonist, Zoe Marshall, was a janitor at the pharmaceutical company that invented the plague. In her new life, with Earth irrevocably damaged by war, her friends and family dead, and a baby inside her, Zoe journeys across the Atlantic and through the wastelands of Europe, ostensibly in search of her therapist-turned-lover, Nick, but really to somehow prove to herself that there is anything left worth living for.
She is an odd mixture of parts, at once needy and defiantly self-sufficient, wisecracking her way through a gruesome landscape as she wipes away her tears. In another book, she would be the neurotic-yet-lovable 30-year-old, wryly deferring the advances of the unsuitable blind dates her mother finds for her. In this world, she uses a chair to nearly kill a man who’s been raping his niece, trades her blood for passage on a boat, and clings desperately to the thought that it’s still possible to be a good person. Sometimes her insistence on morality seems noble; other times it is frustratingly idiotic.
Zoe is meant to be a kind of Pandora, as evidenced by the sealed jar that mysteriously appears in her apartment one day, which she is terrified of opening. But somewhere around the time she meets Medusa and consults the Oracle of Delphi, I realized that Zoe is also the Danaë to a seeming Perseus, who, should he survive, seems destined to serve as a source of hope and illumination to the ravaged population. The development of the symbolic mythological overtones into literal components of the plot was unexpected.
Suddenly, I realized that the book’s inside flap, pitching the story as one in which “Zoe comes to see that humans are defined not by their genetic code, but rather by their actions and choices,” was not was the book was actually about, or at least not what it should be about. This new world, these mutants, this potentially epic landscape, are what the book should have been about from the time Zoe starts her journey. Enjoyable as these revelations were, they were not truly of a piece with the rest of the book, which seemed at first to be standard post-apocalyptic zombie movie fare.
This incongruence is largely due to the unnecessary pages the book devotes to describing the “Then” portion of the “Then” and “Now” segments into which it is divided. There are two ways to go in a post-apocalyptic world. Down one road, we can find out what caused the apocalypse so that we can attempt to stop whatever it is that caused it, and hopefully return to some semblance of the world we had before. But Adams’ world is one that is hurtling headlong down Road Number Two: The Road of No Return (and yes, I magnanimously offer that as a title, free of charge, should the book get picked up for film).
Adams spends too much time giving us back story, as if solving the riddle of how it all started will somehow be of consequence to Zoe’s fate and the fate of the new world. Meanwhile, there are no clues to suggest that these pages will ever prove to be part of an overarching narrative. If Adams does decide to use any of the origin story in the future books, it will require masterful plot weaving.
The less than graceful plot transition is not the only indication that the book lacks tight focus. Adams’ strain shows in her uneven prose, which sometimes produces wonderful, painfully vivid images like this: “A woman is lying on the ground nearby. I help her up… Another woman is a magician’s trick gone wrong, her body severed by a sheet of corrugated iron.” Other times, it lapses into cliché, as when Zoe confronts an enemy: “Come on, asshole. You and me. Right here.” Or when she meets the man who was president of the United States: “We speak of other things… of apple pie and ice cream, of baseball, of times when people still celebrated July Fourth.”
Had White Horse only been a story about a woman looking for her lover at the end of the world, I would have enjoyed it simply because I like a good apocalypse story. But its ambitions raised it above my initial expectations and made me hopeful that the remaining installments will spend less time looking back. Next book, this horse needs to plow forward, whatever may lie ahead.