A good road story is often times more about the journey inward as it is about the journey itself. (“Journey before destination.” Hmm, someone should write that down.) It is uncommon to read a story that treats both types of journeys with enough care that both the characters and the reader experience an enlightened perspective when all is said and done. Jeffrey Hall’s concluding entry into his Welkin duology, “The Nation of Madness,” is such a story: as harrowing as it is hopeful, as challenging as it is cathartic.
This sequel to “City of a Thousand Faces” excels on its predecessor on almost every level. I greatly enjoyed my introduction to the world of Chilongua, a jungle-based continent of countless environmental dangers, of memorable characters with genuine internal struggles. We last left our band of mismatched refugees as they are on the run to a mythical city at the edge of their world, seeking asylum from political and supernatural enemies that wish to kill or enslave them. “The Nation of Madness” picks up right where “City of a Thousand Faces” leaves off, as our band is about to leave all traces of their known civilization behind and enter the Deep Jungle. Threats are escalated to new, terrifying heights, while betrayal and strife between our main characters have frayed all relationships down to their final threads. Irtha’s primal, addiction-fueled animal urges are on the verge of overpowering her consciousness for good. Relationships with Soli and the rest of the companions sour with each new obstacle the group encounters. And you can be sure that those obstacles come fast and heavy. If you thought it difficult to pause for breath in the first book, then this sequel with do your anxiety no favors. The Deep itself is a predator to all prey that live within it. No matter how large a bloodthirsty beast or poisonous plant (or monstrous hybrid of the two), there is always something nastier looming around the bend, emphasizing just how far down the food chain our characters stand.
But with all of the various physical hardships Irtha and the gang face, the more compelling area of the story lies within Irtha herself. Her struggles with addiction to the motherseed is well written and compelling, but what interested me more was Irtha’s struggle to understand her lot in life: her willingness to stop hating herself and allow herself to heal; to allow her relationship with her brother to grow by slowly letting him go; by discovering confidence and assuredness and bravery when the night is at its darkest and hope was at its most fleeting. I harped about lack of character development in the early stages of the previous book, and I’m happy to report that Hall makes up for it in spades this time around. All of these characters are flawed and broken, and Hall does not shy away from putting these flaws under a spotlight. While the middle section of the previous book felt like one long action scene, the scales are balanced much better this time around, and the characters have become much more lifelike because of it.
The conclusion to the Welkin duology is both exhilarating and sad, with difficult choices yielding devastating consequences. Hall does not shy away from punishing his characters with every thrilling and taxing step towards the finish line. The fate of the characters is truly earned by story’s end, which delivers a wide range of emotions that has left me drained, yet eager for more. Luckily, the author has included a short story from an upcoming Chilongua-based anthology that will be released soon, with another duology on the way. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on this author in the months and years ahead, and I suggest that you do so as well.
Review by Adam Weller
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