I'm not usually a standalone novelist sort of fellow but a friend of mine asked me who I thought was the best standalone novelist I read in independent fiction. I was like, "That's a pretty loaded question, friend." I knew a lot of author who would be offended if I didn't pick them because we are, by nature, a prickly and narcissistic lot. However, after a long time, I decided the answer was Stephen Kozeniewski. He's the author of The Ghoul Archipelago, Braineater Jones, Billy and the Cloneasaurus, and now Every Kingdom Divided.
Stephen's work is quirky, funny, weird, and damned entertaining. In a planet full of people who do basically variants on other people's stories, they're pretty damned unique. Don't get me wrong, I don't think Stephen will be joining the ranks of the Hemmingways of the world anytime soon but he writes books which stick in my mind. Braineater Jones, in particular, is a work which I put at 2nd or 3rd for favorite zombie novel of all time. Which, if you notice the literal hundreds of them I've read, is quite the accomplishment.
Part of Stephen's appeal is he's a 'one and done' sort of author. While I tend to prefer series it's nice to be able to pick up a book and have everything told at the end. This can mean any number of things but he's not afraid to kill his darlings or let them have their happily ever afters. It helps keep things interesting and Every Kingdom Divided is no exception with the premise getting dealt with rather than using it as the springboard to tell however many tales the author wanted to about the setting.
But enough about the author, what about Every Kingdom Divided? The title comes from Matthew 12:25, "Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand." It's a dystopian road-trip novel in the style of A Boy and his Dog or the Fallout games with a self-styled doctor named Jack and his companion Haley traveling across the Divided States of America. America has descended into a shooting war between the Red and Blue states with moderates (called "Whites") shooting at both.
It's also hilarious.
The definition of satire is "the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues." Here, it's the depiction of conservatives and liberals at their absolute worst. The Reds being a theme-park depiction of a gun-toting rednecks hiding behind Jesus while the Blues are a totalitarian surveillance state which hides its authoritarianism behind bread and circuses. The politics could easily be insufferable if not for the fact both sides are depicted as ridiculous rather than serious depictions of how the world might go someday.
The book is slightly more sympathetic to the Blues than the Reds but not by much with the majority of it consisting of Jack relating his story to the General of a Blue military base who has him ready to be shot as a Red spy. Jack, himself, is a born Blue from California who just wants to find his fiance but finds himself becoming increasingly enamored with his Red and White traveling companions. Some of the developments are ridiculous but in this hyper-stylized Judge Dredd-esque world, I can't say they don't fit.
Much like the Bioshock games, the fundamental message of "extremism is bad" isn't a particularly new or deep one but I'm not reading the book for its political lessons. Instead, I read it for the enjoyable excess as Jack travels from one insane situation to the next. From dealing with people smugglers in Las Vegas to being made the son-in-law of the Red's President, his story repeatedly twists and turns into ludicrous pretzels which he only gets out of with his one useful skill: lying.
Jack is a decent protagonist, serving as an everyman without being so average as to be boring or a blank-slate. He's a self-educated professional liar with just enough medical training to pass himself off as a doctor and sincere in his desire to find his girlfriend. Haley is the runaway daughter of a Red family who has adopted the pot-smoking drop-out lifestyle of the Blues' lethargic citizenry yet now misses her family. Grenades is a badass action girl serving the Whites but with her own reasons for helping the other heroes. I came to like them all by the book's middle, let alone end.
The ending of the novel is the only real misstep in the story as it's far-far too upbeat and happy for what is mostly a stinging indictment of human stupidity. An ending where the heroes barely escape with their lives or some of them don't walk away would work much better, in my humble opinion, but 90% of the novel is extremely good.
If you're not particularly thin-skinned about your politics or if you simply don't mind the US of A being populated by a bunch of murderous ideological crazy-people then this is a very fund book to curl up to. It never lets you think any of this is to be taken seriously and thus actually allows its message to be taken on the reader's own terms.