Book Review - Above the Timberline

I did say that the next book I'd be reviewing was going to be Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. However, a new project idea has sprung up regarding the format of book reviews and I decided it would be best to bump Ender's Game back a couple months.

In lieu of Ender's Game, we'll be taking a look at the book that inspired me above all others: Above the Timberline by Gregory Manchess.

I'll say it plainly: I love this book. However, I do think it is flawed. Kinda very flawed. Overall, the book suffers from a lack of narration (most of the book is told in either journal entries or dialogue), and the grandness of the pictures overshadows the text and plot.

Set in the years 3517-3518, the world has been plunged into another ice age; all of civilization as we know it is covered in snow and ice. Humanity has miraculously managed to survive into this ice age but much of our history and technology has been lost, leaving us with an almost steampunkish technological culture that knows nothing about the history of the world before the ice age. The main character, Wesley "Wes" Singleton, is a young pilot who braves the Phantom Waste, a huge continent of icy wasteland, in search of his lost father. His father, Galen Singleton, is an archaeologist/explorer who disappears at the beginning of the book in search of a very specific lost city because . . . it would be really cool to add that discovery to his resume (?).

Along the way, Wesley gains some allies (people who live outside his realm of civilization and the bears. The bears are very important.) and makes some enemies (the guys who don't like his dad because . . . you know, it was a real struggle to find out why they dislike Galen so much. I think (let's put some extra emphasis on that think because no clear answer is ever given) it's because he's successful and . . . they're just jealous?).

The dimensionality of the story's conflict reminds me of the Disney movies from the late 90's and early 2000's: good guys in pursuit of good things while the bad guys are trying to stop them because they want money. I'm sad to say that's really all it boils down to, and it boils down to that extremely quickly. The concept of Wes trying to find his dad in this wasteland is interesting enough, the story doesn't even need a villain.

Some design elements are confusing; for example, I'm not sure why this group of bad guys pictured below is wearing 19th century diver's helmets, especially when they're in an airship at very high altitude, boarding and attacking another airship and its passengers in close-range shotgun combat. Knowing some of Manchess' other works, I think the figures are wearing this attire only because Manchess has a thing for helmets (he actually wrote an entire article about it here).

But even then, the diver helmet choice doesn't make a whole lot of sense. At no point will these soldiers be submerged in water (they don't look like they're wearing water-tight outfits anyway). Why not pick another existing type of helmet, or design an entirely new one? Did Manchess choose the diver helmet for aesthetic rather than functionality? Even then this doesn't make sense because, as creators, we can design something that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional. We are not bound by the legacy of fashion. We can create anything we want. So why on earth would he pick diver's helmets?!

I won't allow myself to get too into the speculative science fiction aspect of the book because I feel like there's a lot of nitpicking that can be done here. Like . . . a lot. Much of it just seems like invention but I'm not a geological or environmental expert so I really can't comment on the plausibility of earth's plates shifting so rapidly that they cause an ice age, or any other possible causes and effects of this kind of tectonic disturbance.

A lot of questions I have about the setting and nuances of the plot come up when I really start thinking about it all. (Can this be classified as nitpicking? Probably, but I think excellent fiction should be able to stand up to nitpicking and explain itself thoroughly without the author having to come in and save it from destruction.) I would have been just as content knowing that the story is set in a place where it's just really, really cold. Putting the story on another planet, I think, would've been really interesting. Then Manchess might not have had to explain tectonic plate movement, animal evolutions, or the lost civilization the explorers are searching for. Everything could've been alien.

Now I know what you're thinking: "But Natalie, why on earth did this book inspire you? All you've done so far is criticize it. Surely you can't come back from all that and say you actually like it?"

I'll say it again: I love this book. But I love it because of it's artwork. Manchess is an illustrator with decades of experience under his belt, so I'm really not surprised that his paintings blow me away. He knows when to leave paint strokes suggestive, and when to make them clear and defined.

Let's take the spread of Grim the polar bear shown below:

Manchess doesn't choose to paint every hair on the beast like some other artists would (one of my favorite photorealistic painters is Nick Sider; you can compare his work to Manchess' to see the very obvious stylistic differences). The most detail is reserved for Grim's face━the eyes in particular━and the brushstrokes get looser as the painting radiates outward from the focal point that Manchess wants us to focus on. This technique helps to leave natural space for the text that accompanies the image: in the book, this painting had text on the blue sky background to the left. This also helps split the composition in two parts so that a reader can open the book to this image and see one unified spread, but also see two separate pages. (This formulaic analysis can be applied to any of the paintings highlighted in this review.)

Sometimes, though, there is a disconnect between the painting and the text. In these instances, either the image is too general for all of the important things that are happening in the text, or the image is too specific and doesn't keep up with the goings-on of the text.

I think the book was created as an experimental project, like Manchess had an idea for a series of illustrations, talked to a few enthusiastic artist friends about it, and then decided that he was just going to have fun with the project. To heck with design elements that don't make a lot of sense, to heck with an interesting plot: let's just have fun with this idea and not think about logistics!

Which there really isn't anything wrong with. I will admit the book is an enjoyable surface read, but when I try to dive in, I'm held back by things that could really easily have been made better. I feel like there's so much unrealized potential in the book.

A sequel would be very helpful. To my knowledge, Manchess doesn't have any plans on creating a sequel, which saddens me. It would help clean up all these questions I have and it could give substantial body to the confusing ending (see meme below).

It would give Manchess a second chance at writing a story that's more complex. Maybe we'd even go to another planet and then we could have some real fun with new kinds of creatures and outfits and environments.

All things considered, I'm giving the book a 6.5/10. For all it's flaws, I would still recommend reading it, if only to ogle the paintings.


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All images (except the meme) taken from Gregory Manchess' website:


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