Review: Sunshine State (Paperback)

I recently was required to read Sunshine State as part of my Creative Writing degree course at Kingston University; it being a post-apocalyptic novel sweetened the deal a fair bit! I was tasked with reading the novel primarily to observe an example of setting and world-building, and it is on this basis that I begin.

The premise of Sunshine State is simple. In a near-future world devastated by climate change, former special agent Mark Burrows must undertake one final mission. The setting of a world blighted by global warming and a rise in sea-levels is subtle in the early part of the book; London being a sweltering nightmare the only real clues of something in this almost-future being amiss; there are heavy assertions that the “Storm Zone” that has befallen Florida is a teeming quagmire of environmental and societal collapse and, reading on, I was anxious for the plot to quickly traverse there.

Burrows’ mission in the Storm Zone is to find and neutralise a radical subversive known only as Kalat, but who is in reality a former fellow “invisible man” agent of Burrows gone rogue. I was impressed with the realisation of the Storm Zone as a lawless wasteland that society had quickly abandoned in the face of the most powerful storm, Winthrop, that brought about the climax of the environmental catastrophe. Ruined, abandoned towns, desolate roads and a general feeling of thunder and foreboding kept scenes in the zone feeling taut and charged. The Zone, too, is lawless and filled with a mix of characters that are almost amoral in nature.

There’s interesting commentary, too, in the portrayal of the United States: the country is depicted as having finally transgressed into a Christian fundamentalist state; likewise, this gives room for the abandoned and lawless Storm Zone to become a place of refuge for those the United States’ government is intolerant of and actively persecutes. It adds another layer – a worryingly believable one; the paramilitaries the United States fields are tellingly referred to as Witch Hunters – to the sense of despair and loneliness that pervades the Zone. Ultimately, I felt the United States became a sideline to the main plot; though I would be intrigued to see a radicalised United States explored further as a concept.

The narrative does, almost formulaically, follow the path of Burrows’ despair within the Zone, a hint at his tortured backstory and eventual double-crossing at the hands of the United Kingdom, who ultimately and matter-of-factly don’t expect his return. The trip through Mark’s psyche, exploring the Zone and also the backstory that created it, was quite well accomplished, though my affinity for this genre might preclude my opinion by a small margin.

Miller’s prose is unchallenging but goes some way toward painting a visceral and uncompromising picture of the situation Burrows is facing and the environment. There’s a cutting sense of tension throughout, refreshingly written with a clear voice and style. Early portions between chapters establish backstory through pointed meetings between Burrows and his counselor; these are later replaced with fragments of poetry that seem to echo the madness of Kalat’s thoughts as the climax approaches

I feel, however, a lot of this work is quickly undone in the final two chapters. Firstly, the threat that Kalat promises to bring about fails to ultimately materialise; instead, Burrows is presented with a lonely and insane mind that simply rails against the perceived status quo, and the fallout from this final encounter unfortunately fall apart in a series of vague and confusing extracts that, for want of a better way of putting it, leave Burrows alive and the mission accomplished. However, there is little concrete satisfaction which sadly puts paid to a lot of the interesting and promising scene-setting throughout the book, and left me wondering what the actual threat was to begin with.

However, saying that, the journey was better than the destination and can happily say that Sunshine State is certainly a competent entry with an intriguing take on an environmental catastrophe, and more worryingly, seems almost prophetic in places…

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