Sometimes I come across stories that are so well-written but also so safe and undemanding in their tropes and structures that I'm simultaneously enchanted and bored. Three is one such story. Immediately recognizable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of post-apocalyptic stories, it nonetheless has all the hallmarks of an exciting, well-paced, thoroughly plotted novel. Jay Posey has a talent for narrative, both in the sense of the twists and turns that keep you reading, as well as the little flourishes that add to the characters. Three is a post-apocalyptic road story in the vein of Mad Max, but it also reaches back and borrows from Greek tragedy and more cyberpunk dystopian worlds. The result, surprisingly, is not a mess; unfortunately, it also doesn't wow me.
Posey drops us into the story with little concern for exposition or background story, and this works really well. I think this is a good call in general--if your book opens with a monologue scrawl, why?--but sometimes, in attempting to execute it, authors just leave me too confused or not invested. Posey hits the balance perfectly; he drops terms, for example, that obviously mean something specific--like disconnected--without really explaining what they mean. You have to just keep reading, pick things up from context, while you accompany these characters on their journey. Far from being frustrating, the lack of exposition keeps the story streamlined and accessible.
It probably helps too, as I said above, that Posey leans heavily on all the tropes you'd expect in such a story. You've got your walled enclaves of "civilization" (such as it is) dotted across an unlivable hellscape. You've got the people in power, the people with power, and the people who want power. You've got your allies and support characters, your enemies and your minions, and of course, the "good guys", fighting the good fight with their cool guns and minor superpowers. You've got your badass action hero, your kickass action heroine, and your creepy child with powers neither he nor the other characters completely understand but which, of course, turn out to be very useful and plot-specific.
These tropes are all well-executed; this novel runs like a smoothly-oiled machine. It's a pleasure to read in that sense. Yet, perhaps for this very reason, the novel is a little boring. These tropes are all there is. Three is enjoyable but eminently predictable and safe.
And some of these tropes aren't all that positive, either. They could stand with some subversion. Take the trio of Three, Cass, and Wren, for instance. I don't mean to rag on Cass too much, because I genuinely like her character and, for the most part, the way that Posey portrays her. She's strong and competent but also clearly stressed by the ongoing peril she finds herself in. But at times she is reduced to the "mama bear protecting her cub", and motherhood becomes her overriding trait. She exists as the parental safety net for Wren, as a damsel in distress--and even though this damsel is capable of fighting back by herself, pairing her up with the very masculine and hyper-competent Three just makes for an extremely standard setup.
It would have been so much cooler if Three were a woman or nonbinary and he and Cass could have a queer thing going on (either platonic or romantic or ambiguous, doesn't matter). Or even if Posey had gender-swapped, making Three a woman bounty hunter and Cass a father on the run with his child.
I know there's a fine line between critiquing a book for missed opportunities and criticizing a book too harshly for not being an entirely different thing that you want. Still, I just feel like Three could have been awesome if Posey had taken more chances with the characters, settings, and plot elements.
I'm going to digress now into a more general rumination on post-apocalyptic fiction; my comments here don't necessarily apply to Three solely or even at all, but these thoughts occurred during and after reading this book.
It strikes me there is something very Eurocentric, Western, and fetishistic about most of our post-apocalyptic literature. That is to say, the stock vision of the "hellscape", if you will, is often something already experienced by people around the world. Broken cities separated by vast distances now difficult to traverse, roving gangs of thieves and ex-soldiers regurgitated by the latest in a cycle of strife and civil wars--these are not hypotheticals but are actualities for people who grow up in regions like Sudan and Darfur, in Syria now, etc. When we construct fictional post-apocalyptic worlds that resemble these locations, then, are we colonizing these spaces all over again? Are we engaging in a kind of literary crisis tourism? Is this our equivalent of nineteenth-century novelists writing escapist penny dreadfuls set in the "primitive and untamed wilds" of South America?
Three and other such stories with a Mad Max tone to them feature rugged protagonists fighting for survival against the eternally unjust world of their dystopia. In this way, post-apocalyptic fiction serves as a kind of morality play for the modern age: in this broken future, the individual can endure by being good and strong and fighting back against all odds. This is part of the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction despite its bleak and often devastating settings and events: if individuals can fight and endure even in such dangerous places, then we must be able to survive our 9 to 5s.
Post-apocalyptic fiction is a speculative attempt to recreate the frontier-like feeling of the Wild West, replete with science-fictional technologies and miracles of one's choosing. The core group of protagonists, as our heroes, receive the privilege of being individuals. They often square off against faceless enemies--hordes of zombies (or the Weir, here) or barbarian groups, real or mythological or fictional-but-loosely-based-on-real groups. But the whole conceit of the Wild West is very Eurocentric--it is itself a revisionist construct designed to legitimize settlement and manifest destiny. So when we recreate the Wild West in fictional futures, it's worth examining the elements of colonialist thinking that we drag along into those futures.
I don't know if any of that makes sense. And, as a I said a few paragraphs above, I'm not sure how much of this applies to Three specifically. Like I said, it just occurred to me, and I wanted to record these thoughts.