Willem of the Tafel by
Hans M. Hirschi
Beaten Track Publishing
Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, LGBT, Post-Dystopian, Young Adult
Release Date: May 28, 2015
The world we know is gone, destroyed by greed and ignorance. On a post-apocalyptic Earth, centuries into the future, few have survived the Great War. Some have taken refuge deep inside a mountain. One of them, Willem, is exiled to the surface… Alone and struggling to survive, Willem embarks on an epic journey, making a discovery that could once again alter the future of humanity. Willem of the Tafel is an epic tale of survival, second chances, hope and undying love.
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Willem of the Tafel by Hans Hirschi is a post-apocalyptic novel set some four centuries after a mixture of global-warming induced flooding and nuclear war eradicated the majority of the population. Willem is a young man who has spent his entire life among the Tafel, a society who lives within a bomb shelter beneath the Table Mountain in South Africa. Initially a part of a distrusted and mistreated minority, he becomes a pivotal figure in the future of humanity.
This is a unique take on the post-apocalyptic story, which often find themselves set in nameless deserts with faceless hordes of rampaging lunatics bent on killing (or doing other things) to anything that moves. The world vision presented in this book presents a hopeful vision of an Earth essentially sent back in time by virtue of the loss of almost all technology. Bleakness, so often a theme in the post-apocalyptic setting gives way to an overriding sense of hope.
Willem is likeable character who the reader comes to empathize with over the course of the story. While the omniscient narration felt as though it kept me at arms’ length, I did get a good sense of his isolation, fear, and wonder at the world outside, distrust of surface dwellers, love, longing, and eventual joy. Some of his dialogue felt strange given his upbringing, such as using phrases and colloquialisms that didn’t seem likely. Overall Willem was a well-rounded character with enough innocence, strength, and intelligence to make the reader want to root for him.
His relationship with Hery (barring the suddenness of it) was well portrayed, believable and emotionally touching, especially the sacrifices each had to make.
While I enjoyed this new take on a post-nuclear Earth, some things felt a little strange. It’s unclear if the mention of poisoned parts of the planet where no one can go are the result of superstition or fact, as some aspects of a post-nuclear society as described (chiefly the length of time radiation hazards remain) felt more Hollywood than factual.
The not so good:
The prologue is unnecessary, as all of the information contained within is repeated when Willem has a conversation with Stephane.
Omniscient POV – With a title like Willem of the Tafel, I expected this novel to delve deep into the story of the protagonist for whom it is named. Alas, the author took on an omniscient narration with frequent focus shifts to characters (some rather ancillary) other than Willem. While this did provide a thorough sense of everything going on around Willem, I think overall it detracted from much of the story’s chances at emotional scenes.
The romance between Willem and Hary seemed to come out of nowhere, a ‘love at first sight’ situation. Much of Willem’s evolution from lonely, isolated cave dweller to a person capable of loving and being loved is glossed over in the distance of omniscient narration. We’re not really with Willem during this process, so the reader misses out on a lot of the experience of watching him grow. I felt it was a wasted opportunity to immerse the reader in Willem’s story.
At several points, new chapters leap to relatively minor characters, showing the motivations and schemes of those around him… things that Willem could not know. Allowing the reader to see the actions of the antagonist is often done to create tension for the reader (the reader knows what’s coming but the character does not). The problem here is that the schemes in question don’t imperil the main character much at all for most of the story. When they do, a confrontation occurs, but it feels rushed and―due to the omniscient narration―occurs “at a distance” from the reader. The final conflict between Willem and his greatest antagonist (an antagonist that Willem largely doesn’t even recognize as an antagonist) felt forced and brief. It ended before the reader can comprehend what happened… and the reader never does understand exactly who did what.
Also, during these focus switches to side characters, ideas that had already been presented to the reader were repeated unnecessarily (to the reader) from the head of another character. I thought the character of Willem was compelling, and this would have been a more engaging story if we could have spent more time with him, rather than watching from afar vis a vis omniscient narration.
Antagonist – The story’s antagonist felt like a stereotypical megalomaniac, with little character development other than being an opposing force to Willem. His desires were purely rooted in his craving for power, and there was little to nothing redeeming about him. A good antagonist doesn’t see himself as the antagonist, and there is usually some grain of ‘hey, maybe he’s got a point’ to the bad guy’s ideas―not so in this case. Mavuto was, without a doubt, the bad guy. Add to that, his presence in the book is brief: a little in the beginning, and a little closer to the end where his opposition is out of character (a scheming politician type flings violent) and largely ineffective.
Repetition – Many story elements, themes, and facts are repeated unnecessarily. Examples of this include multiple mentions of there having been 50 years since the doors opened, that banishment above ground meant death, an almost heavy-handed battering of the evils of racism, that the Tafelians were vegan and didn’t eat meat, and continuous reminders of how devastating global warming was, among others.
Racial tension – Within the Tafel, the issue of racial animosity is brought again and again to the forefront. The prologue mentions that no one could remember who started the nuclear war, but the tattered group of survivors still managed to remember to hate each other because of skin color? It comes out later in the narrative that a library existed, which presumably allowed the leaders to mold opinion to their desires, but I couldn’t see any purpose for this. The leaders of the Tafel society had nothing to gain by fostering racial animosity among their own people, as it would only serve to weaken them as a whole. With so few humans left in their group, that seems reckless at best and foolish at worst.
Cliché – The dystopian tropish treatment of Tafel women (those of breeding age being kept sequestered from the general population like prisoners) seemed contrary to their goal of increasing the population. Initially, I was confused how there remained such distinct populations of Shadows and Ghosts (Black and White people), especially given the frequent statements that they were running out of DNA combinations and women were required to ‘have as many babies as possible with as many different fathers as possible.’
It’s never clear until much later that there had been some manner of prohibition on interracial procreation, which again struck me as counterintuitive to the survival of the group (worse given that these were all supposed to be scientists and engineers.) It often felt like the black/white issue in the beginning parts of the story was an artifice forced over the backdrop of a desperate survival situation for the sake of telling a moralistic tale of eventual racial acceptance, even though the situation (300 or so people left alive and spending four centuries underground) makes such animosity unlikely. Over four centuries, I think it would have either boiled over to outright murder or faded to acceptance.
Weak editing – While the story is good despite a few oddities, the book needs the attention of an editor. The major issue was repetition of concepts. Actual typos were rare, but I found frequent word echoes, some awkward sentences, misplaced (or missing) commas, bad dialogue tags, and a few instances where dialogue lacked needed attribution to make it clear who was speaking.
Overall, if you’re looking for a post-apocalyptic “mad max” style story with stuff blowing up every few pages, this isn’t the book for you. This is an emotional, cerebral tale of how one seemingly unimportant boy can make a difference. While the “we are killing the Earth” and “can’t we all just get along” morality undertones are far from subtle, this is a captivating story of a boy’s journey from a nonentity to a man who changes the course of human history.
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Hans M Hirschi (b. 1967) has been writing stories ever since he was a child. Adulthood and the demands of corporate life efficiently put an end to his fiction writing for over twenty years.
A global executive in training and channel development, Hans has traveled the world and had previously published non-fictional titles.
The birth of his son and the subsequent parental leave provided him with the opportunity to unleash his creative writing once again. With little influence over his brain’s creative workings, he indulges it, going with the flow.
A deeply rooted passion for faith in a better world, in love, tolerance and diversity are a red thread throughout both his creative and non-fictional work. His novels might best be described as “literary romance, engaging characters and relevant stories that won’t leave you untouched, but hopeful.”
Hans is a proud member of the Swedish Writers’ Union and the Writers’ Center in Sweden.
The giveaway for Willem of the Tafel has 11 randomly chosen winners; 10 will receive $15 Gift codes to the author’s shop, but the grand prize winner will receive a free ticket to GayRomLit retreat 2015, in San Diego, CA, happening October 15-18th, 2015. Ticket value is $175, but if you win the grand prize, you’re responsible for travel and accommodations. Please notify the author in advance should you win and be unable to attend, so we can choose another recipient to enjoy the prize!
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