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Snakeskin Road by James Braziel

01/04/2010. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin

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pub: Bantam Spectra. 323 page enlarged paperback. Price: $15.00 (US), $17.50 (CAN) ISBN: 978-0-553-38503-8.

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James Braziel's debut novel, 'Birmingham, 35 Miles', painted a bleak picture of an American South devastated by climactic change. The land south of Birmingham, Alabama was little more than a desert wasteland, where those who remained were forced to work as clay miners, prevented from moving north by the government. The book was well-written in places but I found it lifeless and hard to empathise with.

This book makes a good start in repairing that damage by introducing more dynamic plot action and a main character who actually wants to achieve something. Jennifer is the wife of the depressingly dull protagonist, Matthew Harrison, in the first book. Having left him in the wastelands mining clay, Jennifer is moving North, trying to reach her mother in Chicago.

Birmingham, Alabama was made out to be the holy land in the first book, a city that began the start of the 'Saved World'. When Jennifer reaches Birmingham, she finds the stories aren't true and that things are just as bad as they are further south. With refugees dying on the streets and lawlessness everywhere, Jennifer hides in an abandoned van with another lady and her young daughter, Mazy. They try to find a smuggler to move them further north, but quickly realise that this route may guarantee them passage, but it won't guarantee their freedom when they get there.

This book is a much easier read than its predecessor, which in addition to its passive characters suffered from a narrative that jumped time and place far too often. 'Snakeskin Road' addresses both complaints, with a tighter, more linear plot that is less reliant on literary tricks to keep it afloat. The scenes where Jennifer is on the move are the best and some of the events in Birmingham are grimly effective.

About half-way through, Jennifer reaches a destination, even if it's not exactly the one she wanted. Here the pace slows to a crawl and though there is some interesting mood and characterisation during this period, the plot judders to a halt, the conflict and stress that powered the first half strangely muted as Braziel's first novel issues re-appear.

The author seems to realise this but uses a crude and jarring tool to fix it. The last quarter of the book change point of view seemingly at random to a bounty hunter on the hunt for Jennifer. It's a change of story so abrupt it feels confusing and forced and ruins the mood and pacing of the book. It's an interesting side piece by itself, but as the vast majority of the novel's end this new character's story spoils any immersion we might have had in Jennifer's story. Had we had snippets of the bounty hunter's exploits spliced through the rest of the book, this ending might have worked. As it is, it feels like a gimmick to save a stalled plot.

James Braziel is obviously very talented, and displays again many incidences of lovely poetic language and clever description. His plotting and characterisation, which I found so poor in the first book, is definitely improved here. I can see a brilliant novel in his future, but the inconsistencies of pace and the reliance on literary tricks to save the plot stops 'Snakeskin Road' from being anything more than a well-written diversion.

Tomas L. Martin

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