by Alison Stine

Published: January 22, 2022

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In a Nutshell

Character-driven and evocative, but plot-shallow with world-building and character plot holes

Best fit: someone looking for mood and neighborhood immersion, who doesn’t mind less action or air-tight world building

Genre: Sci-Fi, cli-fi, human interest, speculative fiction

Pages: 384


Set sometime in the not-so-distant future, this book details the lives of a small community living in the vast maze-like wreckage heap of Trashlands. In this landscape, plastic is currency after devastating floods annihilated most of civilization and shut down plastic production. Trashlands is a small oasis in this wasteland. The presence of a functioning strip club, known also as Trashlands, instills a sense of community and stability. Both governance and economy, Trashland’s lecherous owner, Rattlesnake Master, rules his community with a plastic fist, and hires large muscled goons to enforce his autocratic rules. However, the presence of the strip club, and therefore the goons, ensures order as well as a steady stream of income for the locals.

Our main character is Coral, a scrappy plastic forager moonlighting as a sculptor, hoping someday to save up enough valuable plastic to buy back the son she lost to child collectors. Coral, her partner, and her father, survive mostly by her work as a plastic picker. She hauls in plastic from the nearby polluted river, which they then trade for food and supplies at a local market. Though mostly Corals, the perspective flits back and forth between several characters, including her partner, her father, other residents in Trashlands, and a newcomer from the city.

The story begins with Coral as a teenager, but flashes forward to around the time the newcomer arrives. The narrative often steps outside of itself as it slips back and forth between past and present, allowing the reader to understand how the characters evolved into the Trashland’s community.


What Trashlands did well

Writing Style and Mood Building, Characters, Premise, Local World Building

  • Writing Style and Mood Building

    In the beginning, I was captivated. The author has a beautiful writing style, eloquently evoking a somber melancholic feeling. I felt an immediate gripping tension. As the novel flips back and forth between past and present, the character’s current struggles are revealed through past episodes and demons. It’s clear that each character is haunted by some event(s) in their past and a majority of the novel is dedicated to reconciling one with the other.

  • Characters

    The characters are very unique and fit within the framework of the community. Not only do we see a lot of Coral, we get to know the club owner, Rattlesnake Master; his best dancer, the tattooed but insecure Foxglove; Coral’s son, Shanghai, stuck laboring under a heavily guarded factory regime; Coral’s father, the wise Mr. Fall, and self-appointed local schoolmaster. And the list goes on.

    Writing this review, I’m also realizing that the characters don’t have unique voices, which I actually don’t mind. While that technique works for some novels, it can be distracting. Instead, Trashland’s characters all have the same introspectively observational tone.

  • Premise

    The premise of the story - that of a world reliant on plastic - is another thing the author does well. It’s an interesting twist on the post-apocalyptic genre.

  • Local Building

    Altogether, the writing style, characters, and premise make for excellent building blocks for a complete story. And the author accomplishes this in the local sense. The world building around the community of Trashlands is incredibly detailed, thought-provoking, and dynamic. I enjoyed getting to know what it’s like living in a dump with strategically byzantine corridors, dancers with high heels made from wine glass stems, and a strip club that also acts as a decent motel.

What Trashlands could have done better:

  • Plot and Character Development

    The novel needed more plot and character development. While the narrative is beautiful and the characters elegantly depicted, these developments felt like a big bucket sitting in a verdant garden - relevant, but not fully integrated with the rest of the scene.

    Because of this disconnect, the reader has no sense of purpose - or no problem to resolve. We are told from the beginning that a problem exists, yet it isn’t addressed until late in the novel, which gave a sense of progression, but not one complemented by the characters. In fact, the characters spend a majority of the novel reflecting on their internal struggles. However, these struggles don’t mirror their external lives, as problems happening in the outside world don’t seem to impact their introspection or behavior. In not reacting synonymously with external events, the reader has a harder time understanding the character’s values and emotional states. By the end, characters felt flat and hollow.

    From my experience, plot and character development are intimately connected in most novels - plot usually motivating character development. It’s no surprise then that lack of one spawned lack of the other. I constantly found myself wanting more - from the action and from the characters. The tension I felt from the beginning stagnated the further through the novel I read.

  • Plot Holes

    Perhaps because plot and character development, two fundamental narrative building blocks, felt lacking, the plot that did exist was full of holes - the characters decisions were often incongruent with their values or intentions and the world building in and around Trashlands had some glaring holes that proved distracting even when suspending my disbelief.

    This novel was character-driven from the beginning, so I don’t fault the author for detailing the characters and mood so thoroughly. However, I don’t believe those details are mutually exclusive from plot and character development. Instead, I felt that the book could have been enhanced with a fleshed out plot, without detracting from the emotional depth it already taps into.