Dystopian, dire and terrifying, Thirty Seconds by Heather MacPherson (Amazon, 2013) shows readers what the end of the world may look like, not with a bang but with “no noise at all.”
What would you do if one day, you were driving home from work, and in the blink of an eye all the electricity—as well as nearly all the world’s population—vanishes? Mae, thirty-year-old single mother of baby Holly, is thrust abruptly into a dark and depraved wasteland, finding herself stranded in a world where she, her twin sister Darlene, and a group of wayward strangers are on the run from a malicious gang of men with no refuge in sight. The only thing leading them forward is a mysterious blinding light in the distance, a light that none of them knows will be salvation or their destruction.
I don’t usually pick up a dystopian novel these days. I find myself tired of bleak, dismal futures in recent books, but I was intrigued by the premise of Thirty Seconds. The story begins from the first-person perspective of Mae, and we share with her the confusion, fear and fierce love for her daughter. I wish the novel had been written entirely from her perspective, or had the first-person narration trade off between characters throughout. However, the story constantly jumps between Mae’s first-person narration to third-person, sometimes even switching from first- to third-person in the middle of a chapter. I was confused with the shifting back and forth and didn’t see why it was necessary to do so.
The characters are crafted well, each with distinct personalities and backstories. Mae is independent, tough and relatable, using her intelligence (although more often, a strange supernatural ability that she develops) to get out of deadly predicaments. Darlene is sympathetic and likeable, a woman who has unwillingly been a sexual target for men all her life, and where she could have been easily portrayed as a two-dimensional pretty woman, she was well fleshed out and a strong person in her own right. There is also loving father Ash and his young son Michael, tenderhearted “Dolly Parton-esque” Olga, world-beaten Sarah, and sweet elderly couple Edward and Honey.
MacPherson did a superb job creating distinguishable histories for each of her characters, and in a way I wish these backstories had their own novel(s)—I actually wanted to find out even more about them. My main problem with these backstories, however, is where they were placed within the book. In the second half of the story, as the climax builds more and more, suddenly we get someone’s history smack dab in the middle of all the action, and it goes on for several pages. This disrupted a lot of the pacing leading up to the end and took me out of the action.
As much as I love the concept of normal people acquiring unusual powers, I am on the fence about the characters discovering their superhuman abilities over the course of their journey. They came across as little more than deus ex machina for the characters to escape from otherwise inescapable scenarios. When the characters really needed to save themselves, then “poof,” someone got a new power surprisingly convenient to that given situation. One character’s ability, which was so out of nowhere and only seemed to manifest so a bad guy could be trampled to death by an elephant, actually made me laugh. Given the serious nature of the plot, some of the superpowers came across as silly.
Maybe what was the trickiest part for me to handle with Thirty Seconds was the dichotomy of tones. On the one hand, you have good guys with superpowers, child characters with lively energy and endearing innocence, and the hints of what may or may not be extra-terrestrial involvement—this all would point to a sci-fi action adventure. On the other hand, there are major adult themes in this story—I have incredible difficulty reading about rape (to both women and children), gratuitous violence, and physical abuse to a baby, even in a fictional story. But what else would you expect if moral human society was wiped off the planet? Just be prepared for some uncomfortable, gritty moments, I warn any readers with gentle dispositions.
Thirty Seconds, while not without its flaws, did keep me reading at a brisk pace—one could read this novel in one sitting and be engrossed all the way through. It had enough twists to not be predictable, and while it may leave the reader with more questions at the end than at the beginning, I sense there will be more books that will continue this plotline to come. I would certainly like to see more of these characters and what else this author has in store for us.
Heather MacPherson was born and raised in Newport, RI. She has a B.A. in creative writing from Roger Williams University. She is a wife and a mother of one. Her days are spent working in the non-profit sector but her passion has always been writing. She started writing short stories and poetry in the fourth grade. Her writing has also appeared in Toasted Cheese. Thirty Seconds is MacPherson’s first novel.
A.R. Cook resides in Gainesville, Georgia, and is the author of The Scholar and the Sphinx fantasy book series from Mithras Books, the young adult imprint of Knox Robinson Publishing. She has short stories published in the anthology The Kress Project from the Georgia Museum of Art, and the fairy-tale collection Willow Weep No More from Tenebris Books. Several of A.R.’s short stories and short plays have been awarded first place in various magazines, such as Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Writer’s Digest. From 2009-2013, A.R. was the book review columnist for the Gainesville Times in Northeast Georgia. You can contact her at scholarandsphinx[at]gmail.com or through her website.