Out of boredom, and the fact that I haven’t bothered writing anything here for a while, I thought I’d upload this review I wrote about a year and a half ago of James Miller’s Sunshine State. Originally penned for Ireland’s Sunday Independent, the review was subsequently never published – which only goes to show how truly shit a writer I am, effectively. In any case, here it is for your delectation. I really hope it doesn’t bore you as much as it obviously did the literary editor, but in all probability you will be fairly stultified. For that, I pre-emptively apologise.
A chillingly dystopic vision of a post-apocalyptic near-future, Sunshine State is the sophomore effort from James Miller whose acclaimed debut Lost Boys was a similar work of speculative fiction. Mark Burrows, a secret service agent, is summoned for one final mission; to journey into the chaotic Florida ‘Storm Zone’, a region decimated by hurricanes, and seek out his former colleague (and brother-in-law) Charlie Ashe who has apparently gone renegade. As he ventures closer and closer to his target, Burrows is confronted with the embers of an incinerated civilisation, encountering a terrifying new world of fanatical cults, criminal gangs and abandoned armies.
With unavoidable echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Sunshine State also owes much to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Burrows’ odyssey is replete with homages to these classic works – even Charlie Ashe, or ‘Kalat’ as he has become known in his new incarnation, bears a fairly-blatantly uncanny resemblance to Kurz. Kalat has become a symbolic figure for the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, who gravitate towards the lawless Storm Zone to escape injustice and repression elsewhere. Fearing Kalat’s power, the shadowy powers-that-be send Burrows to eradicate this populist threat.
James Miller exhibits some masterfully florid prose with some truly atmospheric descriptive passages. The landscapes are vivid, the imagery compelling, the universe utterly believable. With every step Burrows takes dragging him further into this abyss of a new dark age, it feels as if you are being dragged right down with him. Miller manages to submerge the reader in this world – to call the book ‘immersive’ would be an understatement.
It is therefore doubly disappointing the neither the story nor the characters who inhabit it manage to do such creative flair justice. The plot is simply nowhere near compelling enough, there are no twists and turns, no revelations to sink one’s teeth into, no real drama, no suspense save for the wonder of what destroyed-and-reinvented part of Florida will appear next. It could be that the storyline is itself nothing more than a prism through which to view the full extent of the author’s imagined setting but, while this would be justifiable, it does struggle to maintain the reader’s interest in spite of the colourful environments.
As for the characters, the main protagonist is empathic enough to follow with a degree of sympathy without ever achieving much depth or complexity, but too many of the other individuals are either featureless, clichéd or ludicrously over-the-top. It doesn’t seem to matter who populates Sunshine State, as it’s the creative vision that we are clearly meant to be marvelling at rather than nuances of character development. There is some internal conflict in Burrows regarding the morality of his mission – he has, after all, been sent to track down and ‘neutralise’ his own brother-in-law – but even this feels heavy-handed and unsubtle.
Sunshine State is certainly worth reading for the engrossing passages describing a bountiful land brought to its knees by climactic disaster, and its satirical commentary on American culture is equally articulate. However, the derivative storyline and vacant characters fail to challenge the reader sufficiently to merit more applause, and the fairly predictable story arc does nothing to engage said reader’s enthusiasm. All in all, a tale bereft of complex characters or an adequately-woven plot, but a vibrant and lush setting nonetheless.
Solidarity brothers & sisters… ☭
P.S. Here is a much, much better review of the same work, showing exactly how a review should be done.