Sand by Hugh Howey: book review


No major spoilers.

I am highly selective of what I read. As a writer I don’t want to fill my brain with the echoes of badly-written words, and as a reader who reads for enjoyment, I don’t want to invest precious time reading anything other than the best.

This means that when I find a good thing, I stick to it. Having read the Wool trilogy, a master-class in world-building and plot unveiling, it was a safe bet that Hugh Howey’s follow-up, Sand, would be decent.
The concept of Sand is uniquely original, a real achievement that demonstrates that Hugh Howey is not a one hit wonder and has compelling ideas outside of the silo encompassed universe of Wool. It’s also well-written, and has been well-edited.

Why then am I left disheartened?

The writing style of Sand is grittier (sorry) than in the Wool trilogy – the odd swear word, sexual themes, the dialogue and actions more graphic and abrasive – and this makes the world seem more raw and unforgiving. It is not a bad thing, but it’s a noticeable change in style. There is plenty of exposition, but not enough of it is meaningful; I don’t understand why Howey felt the need to explain this world’s methods of contraception – graphically – while far more important questions go unanswered.

The foundation of a good book seem to be present, but as those important questions go unanswered, you realise the problem is with the chosen story itself and how it is told. It’s core stuff without which your belief in this new universe falls through the gaps, just like the sand.

The Wool trilogy benefited from a clear origin linked to the real world and this helped the reader feel connected, whereas in Sand I didn’t quite experience that same attachment and so the world feels less authentic. Remnants of our own world are briefly shown, enough hints to make it clear they are linked, but they exist separate like the seabed and the ocean surface; connected by water, but miles apart. I find myself wishing for a chain and anchor to connect them more certainly; a vivid demonstration of kinship between the two.

The story didn’t have the same tension that Wool delivered either. The only real tension was provided early on in the story, the claustrophobia, danger, and panic of the sand diving vivid, but the early suggestion of more, did not materialize. Significant dangers are hinted at, but these didn’t manifest into a tangible villain to be feared. All you get are a couple of very one-dimensional baddies who play only a small bit part, and without a strong enemy, the protagonist’s only struggle is against the sand itself, and this is not enough to make compelling reading.

There are differences in structure too. In Wool you stick with a character for long periods, get to live in their skin. In Sand, you follow five or six different characters, members of the same family, for briefer periods, usually just one or two short chapters at a time, and I felt this made it harder for Howey to carve out a uniqueness to each character, and for the reader to make a connection with them.

You get near the end and you think, okay, there has to be a book worth of writing left to take this to the next level, expanding on the universe, explaining the details, settling into one or two of the characters and developing them more fully, seeing this ‘No Mans Land’ that is oft talked about where the sand comes from…this is heading for a sequel and maybe I just need a little more patience…but no. He just ends it without showing you any of that, it’s a bit like he found those questions too hard to figure out answers for, or just lost interest in the story himself.

So, would I recommend it? Perhaps, but only if you don’t have something better to read. Like Wool; if you haven’t read that yet, then go read that instead, it is far superior.


Picture by Rene Jakobson. CC licence use.

4 thoughts on “Sand by Hugh Howey: book review

  1. Sand had a great start. Then I got confused somehow, blamed it on myself and my lame brain, and haven’t gone back to figure it out (because an ebook and an audiobook combination doesn’t allow me to skim, which is what I need). Thanks for the analysis. And I love Hugh. And Wool. Pity.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It was a very realistic microcosm of what might actually happen – if we had silos like that, of course. Many books go fantastical on me – and I lose interest. But straight survivalist literature can be boring. Basic survival is hard work with plenty of pitfalls and little leisure – like the lives of our pioneers.

        I thought Wool navigated nicely in between. But if your wife doesn’t wish to read something, and won’t even try, possibly it’s not her kind of book? Each reader brings a different worldview to each book.

        Sounds like she did try it. Maybe at a different time in her life.


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