One of my favorite books as a judge in the first Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC) was Rebecca Crunden's A Touch of Death, the first book in a post-apocalyptic series where the non-mutated humans who emerge from underground long after a nuclear conflagration end up in a totalitarian monarchy where freedom and history are outlawed.
I reviewed A Touch of Death for File 770's SPSFC team last May and just read book two, A History of Madness, of my own free will. It's the first free-range reading I've done in a while because I was deep in the weeds reading books for the second SPSFC.
Out of 300 books entered in the first SPSFC, seven made the finals. A Touch of Death finished eighth.
A History of Madness picks up right where the last book left off for Nate and Catherine, two members of the upper class who threw away lives of easy affluence within the King's inner circle because they could endure no more tyranny. Actually, only one of them did that with full intent (Nate) and the other was more of an accidental revolutionary (Catherine).
Without spoiling the ending of book one, I'll say that it left Nate and Catherine in serious doubt of living to see book two.
This installment begins with Nate in Redwater Prison again, where every day he isn't executed is a surprise, though one not entirely welcome because of how the king treats imprisoned dissidents. Being within its walls brings back the memory of a childhood trip to the prison, where his teacher was executed by firing squad in front of the students for reading them an unauthorized book.
Nate ends up in a work camp to serve the rest of his sentence building the kingdom's new city and being left alone by the guards. But going along with that would mean permanent separation from Catherine, whose upcoming marriage to a notorious sadist in the king's family is all over the broadcasts.
Nate's already plotting escape the first night his head hits the pillow.
I read this book fearing throughout that bad things were about to happen to the protagonists. Crunden's excellent at evoking dread.
The first book made readers care about the protagonists. The second makes them care about the world. As I progressed I found myself thinking as much about the setting of Cutta and its inhabitants as I did the escape bid of Nate and Catherine. This gives confidence there's a rich five-book story to be told here.
Have I mentioned yet that we meet the mutants? You can't tell a story about non-mutated humans without mutated ones, but in book one they were often mentioned and never seen. When the mutants are finally ready for their closeup, Mr. DeMille, it pivots the events of this pentalogy in an intriguing new direction.
Crunden tirelessly promotes self-published authors on Twitter with her Indie Book Spotlight account, which has amassed 30,000 followers. She deserves some promoting of her own.
A History of Madness is an engaging dystopian science fiction novel by a talented writer with as comfortable an ease of phrase and ear for dialogue as books I've nominated in the past for Hugos.
However, I'm still not ready to ship Cathernate as a couple.