Book Review: Beacon 23 by Hugh Howey
“A spectacularly told tale of one man’s experience with depression, guilt, love, and hope.” A spoiler free review.
For centuries, men and women have manned lighthouses to ensure the safe passage of ships. It is a lonely job, and a thankless one for the most part. Until something goes wrong. Until a ship is in distress. In the twenty-third century, this job has moved into outer space. A network of beacons allows ships to travel across the Milky Way at many times the speed of light. These beacons are built to be robust. They never break down. They never fail. At least, they aren’t supposed to.
Outside of the simple, yet enticing cover, that was the description that drew me to Hugh Howey’s Beacon 23. At the time, I was midway through the Mass Effect series and my mind immediately drew parallels between the two. With the added promise of “aliens, war, and madness,” I couldn’t help but set my own expectations for what I was about to read. I picked up the book ready for a classic sci-fi space adventure. What I got was something entirely different, something deeply personal. Oh, it certainly fit the description above; but it was much better reflected in the dedication before the novel’s opening pages: For those who suffer alone.
Originally released in five separate parts of the course of several months, the full series is now available in a single novel. It wasn’t until after I’d finished reading the entire collection that I realized Howey had hoped readers would pause between parts to let the individual stories linger. I feel a bit guilty not having done that — unless a day or so in between parts is considered enough of a pause — but Howey’s writing makes it hard to not want to continue onward. At the same time, the separation of parts helps keep readers from ever feeling like they’re not going to accomplish much by sitting down and reading for less than thirty minutes.
In broad strokes, the series tells the story of an unnamed protagonist operating what is, essentially, a space lighthouse. As ships approach the beacon, they receive a signal that warns them to slow down, ensuring safe passage through the less forgiving reaches of space. Amidst this man’s job operating Beacon 23, a war is raging between humans and an alien species called the Ryph. This war exists mostly in the background and in our protagonist’s past as a war hero, but that past helps set up the character we come to know very intimately over the course of the novel.
See, this character first set out to operate one of these space lighthouses after becoming a war hero in the eyes of the public. He clearly feels guilty over earning this title, though, and the reason for his guilt unfolds in the background as each individual story is told. He is haunted by this experience and memories of the war, so he chose to operate a beacon to get away from service and hide from the war. But escaping the war isn’t easy, especially when the memories still play themselves over in your mind.
Image credit: Ben Adams.
Howey brilliantly uses the different parts to tell stories that could easily be self-contained but still work together to paint an even bigger picture of this beacon’s operator. Each section has its own story with an underlying theme that ties to an aspect of depression and/or PTSD. What happens when you get the solitude you wanted? Can a break in the solitude be a good thing, or will it just lead to more hurt? How can we connect if we feel empty ourselves? None of this is to say the story lacks humor — the protagonist’s dialog and narration are presented with unfiltered wit and sarcasm and each section manages to fit in enough comic relief through them that the tone is never one-note. (One particular exchange in the second section had me laughing right alongside the narrator.)
These stories are told succinctly, never overstaying their welcome but never feeling as though details have been left out. Not only that, but Howey takes advantage of this structure to catch readers off guard with a fifth story that ties everything that came before it together. Details both major and minor all come into play in one amazing culmination that feels like it ends as soon as it begins.
The genius of Beacon 23 is that it takes a setting separated by swaths of time and space and makes the story so intimately personal that there’s never a disconnect between the protagonist’s experiences and the experiences a modern-day reader might have. War is war, now and in the future. Loneliness is loneliness, depression is depression. The series brilliantly explores all of this in a way that sometimes feels just a little too real.
Howey’s language also contributes to this ease of access; wherever possible, he avoids unnecessary jargon in favor of straightforward dialog. As far as science fiction writing is concerned, readers are never going to run into made-up words that aren’t both quickly explained and easily relatable. That doesn’t mean that Howey doesn’t find a way to use them to maximum effect, however. Notably, Part 2 — a tie with the final section as my personal favorite — uses the novel’s limited usage of jargon to tell a perfect story of loneliness and companionship.
If there’s a downside to Beacon 23, it’s that it can be painfully real at times. Everything our protagonist experiences can easily have a personal equivalent for the reader. And if you’ve ever suffered — or still are suffering — from depression or PTSD, this book will likely open some old wounds. The book ultimately ends on a hopeful note, but the journey there can be rough at times.
That being said, I still highly recommend you give this a read. Whether or not you take breaks between sections, the overall time investment is minimal for a spectacularly told tale of one man’s experience with depression, guilt, love, and hope. If this sounds like your cup of tea, the book is available in full on Amazon. If you’re on the fence and have Kindle, you can always give the Part 1 a read on its own — though I recommend at least reading through Part 2. (And remember, Blizzard Watch makes a small commission if you purchase the book from one of the links listed here!)
If you’ve read the book, please let us know what you think! Just remember to gives a heads up if you’re going to mention any plot details. And if you’re interested in more of Howey’s work, you can find him on Twitter as well as his personal website.
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