A Desolate Splendor

A Desolate Splendor

A Novel

Book - 2016
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The collapse of civilization has left the survivors scattered among a few settlements along the wilderness fringe of a land ravaged by war. Preyed upon by roving bands of sadistic ex-soldiers and ever at the mercy of a natural world that has turned against them, a family is facing their final days. Hope appears in the guise of their young son--raised in isolation and taught by his father to survive at any cost, he helps rescue a group of captives from a savage and relentless cult and is thrust headlong into a battle for his future and the future of humankind.
Publisher: Toronto : ECW Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781770412040
Characteristics: 297 pages


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Aug 23, 2017

London Scene Magazine, May 2017, Reviewed by Adam Shirley

John Jantunen’s A Desolate Splendor is a bleak portrayal of the depths to which humanity can sink, checkered with moments of optimism and resilience. A carefree girl, torn from all she knows and plunged into a life of abuse and brutality,finds her freedom but has trouble leaving violence behind. A sadistic troupe of former soldiers has their protection scheme ruined when a nearby town is attacked and burned to the ground, forcing them to set out after those responsible. And a hope-filled young boy raised in isolation to hunt, farm, and survive against an increasingly capriciousness natural world, finds that life outside his hidden valley is far worse than he had ever thought possible. These stories collide across a war-ravaged backdrop of humanity’s potential extinction, where life is fragile, safety is an illusion and life-and-death decisions have become the norm. A Desolate Splendour is intense, intelligent and unflinchingly brutal in its portrayal of a frontier atmosphere where human society has completely broken down into violent tribes and selfish individualism. Jantunen spares little in his depiction of depravity and misuse of power, including assault, murder, and much worse, a chillingly possible future reminiscent of events all-too-frequently present in humanity’s past and present. Although well-written and absorbing from start to finish, Jantunen’s book will not be for everyone. Fans of noir thrillers and post-apocalyptic fiction will find this tale thrilling and realistic, but other readers may find the bleak tone and graphic descriptions unsettling.

Jun 28, 2017

The Winnipeg Review, Feb 2017 (Justin Andrews)

John Jantunen’s second novel is a post-apocalyptic western that some are comparing to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Blood Meridian. While the novel stands on its own, the parallels are certainly there: the grim “frontier” setting, the southern vernacular, the occasional King James English, the absence of quotation marks and so on. More broadly, it works within a framework that we have come to associate with post-apocalyptic fiction, one that cleans the slate of civilization and moral norms and creates a playground for grand ethical and existential questions. In A Desolate Splendor,the narrative shifts between a boy protagonist and his family to the experiences of slaves, ruthless ex-soldiers, wanderers, tribal warriors and vulnerable homesteaders—until these stories intertwine in a violent high-stakes finale. Like McCarthy, Jantunen utilizes a bleak and barbaric setting to illuminate the beautiful minutia of human experience (hence the title). The image of a mother nursing her child, for instance, is all the more moving in a world where babies are frequently fed to snarling dogs. Jantunen’s prose is often precise in these moments, clean and clear with sincerity, exemplified when a sex-slave named Elsa finally escapes her captors: “Six years, she thought. And nine children. A bountiful harvest, in the leanest of times.”

Playing with this kind of brutality/tenderness binary has become increasingly popular in post-apocalyptic stories and their cousins, primitive “frontier” stories, which are seen everywhere from literary fiction like McCarthy’s work to blockbuster TV like Games of Thrones. Unflinching examinations of violence, incest, rape, infanticide and cannibalism are scattered throughout Jantunen’s novel. Note the following scene where two warriors, Ostes and Nisi, attack a sleeping camp:

His light shone over a writhing sea awash in blood and entrails. The ground was a cluttered wreck of arms and legs and bodies hacked into pieces, the trail of woe enlivened only by the spasmodic tremors of life in retreat of its foe—hands clutching at spilled guts and stemming geysers and one severed from its master and twitching on its back like an overturned turtle.

The gruesomeness of this scene is oddly cartoonish, inadvertently dissonant and off-kilter from the realism of the novel. Instead of letting the intensity of the violence speak for itself, Jantunen’s prose is equally florid and extreme. The portrayal of uncensored violence requires fine-honed censorship, an awareness and emotional connection to the heft and ramifications of that violence. This is essential work: readers are quick to discern when they are being force-fed something, when the writer is trying to manipulate them with easy tricks. At its best, such prose is gut-wrenching without being heart-wrenching; at its worst, it simply appears adolescent. But this hollowed and eager portrayal of violence and post-civilized depravity is indicative of the strengths of A Desolate Splendor, which is written with a confident kind of impetus and drama. It has an honesty of intention that might be compared to Stephen King and there are moments when Jantunen can make us shiver as something creeps in the shadows or cheer as a loyal dog saves a boy’s life. Take this moment involving a child and his deathly-ill mother: “When his father came into the room just after dark, they were lying in bed, his wife curled around his son’s back, holding him so tight that it looked like he’d have to break her arms to get them apart.”

The novel abounds with this raw type of physical emotion. One of Jantunen’s strengths as a writer is his understanding of the physical intimacy between family and lovers. Although the Game of Thrones style of violence may cause some readers to roll their eyes, Jantunen’s characters are real, their relationships are real, and we root for them regardless.

Jun 28, 2017

From Quill & Quire, Dec 2017 (Review By Alex Good):

It may have become too easy to invoke the name Cormac McCarthy when discussing a certain strain of contemporary fiction, but when the shoe fits so snugly, such comparisons are unavoidable.

John Jantunen’s second novel is firmly set in McCarthy country. The time and place are indeterminate, but the social, physical, and linguistic landscapes are very much borrowed from the master. A great war, or some such collapse, has destroyed civilization and thrust humanity several hundred – or even thousand – years back into a preindustrial, barely agricultural wasteland. It is a reflexive American frontier, a burnt-out district of mythic savagery over which the course of empire runs in reverse.

The figures in this landscape have degenerated in a similar way. They are not intellectual or spiritual beings; their morality is scarcely advanced beyond Bronze Age concepts of loyalty to one’s family or one’s hounds. There is no God in heaven, only “the desolate splendor of the world beyond ours” – meaning the stars. On the earthly plane, life has been reduced to the rudiments of survival: gathering food, rutting, and fighting off wild animals (including murderous tribes of other, even further devolved humans).

The language has the poetic twang of McCarthy’s folksy-archaic-Biblical style: “Above the camp, the moon peered through a haze drift of smoke and the stars were but motes coruscate against the void, indifferent and laggard in their contemplation of the mortal world below.” A man stands beneath these stars in “sullen recompose,” listening to a woman “break into baleful lamentations.” The direct speech – unencumbered, as in McCarthy, with quotation marks – is rendered in a rustic dialect that’s a generation removed from book learnin’. One of the characters complains that “I’ma tryin ta read” when in fact he is only describing pictures in books.

This is the world of A Desolate Splendor, and if it sounds like a McCarthy novel, right down to the archetypal characters – centrally, “the man” and “the boy” – that’s still some achievement. However, Jantunen is a talented storyteller in his own right, with a real gift for describing the richness and magical qualities of the natural world. There is something remarkably romantic and pagan in his evocation of the post-Apocalyptic wilderness. Though the characters seem at times to be little advanced from the mud or trees, that natural environment is itself a thrilling, animistic place, where even the rocks seem to have a monstrous life of their own and “frogsong trill[s] in a nebulous thunder.”

The story is an odd piece of work, consisting of several different narrative blocks that bump into each other in bloody ways. The main characters are the boy and his father, who are homesteaders. The other groups include a gang of desperadoes, a pair of neo-native warriors, and a gathering of female breed stock. Also in the mix are feral packs of humanity who decorate their bodies with bones and paint. Instead of resolution the novel moves toward an affirmation of continuity, albeit at the lowest level of the continuance of the species. Civilization doesn’t seem likely to experience a rebound.

As familiar as some of this terrain has become, A Desolate Splendor surveys it with bleak confidence: a forceful, visionary novel written in passionate and sensual language.

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Aug 23, 2017

Kai06 thinks this title is suitable for 15 years and over


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