I am not a prolific post-apocalypse reader, but I have read enough of them to realize there is a cyclical nature to their stories. Many trilogies within the genre follow the following format: book one shows you a ruined world and explores the question of “what happened?” Book two provides a window into the past and explores “why the end times happened.” Book three provides you with the full context of what is going on, moves you to the present, and explores “is what happened good or bad?” I have been through this cycle around five times now, and even though each story I read has its own quirks and originalities, it is hard to keep getting excited about these same themes. Thus, it should speak to the quality and execution of Eyal Kless’ The Puzzler’s War that it falls neatly into this trilogy set up that I mention, but has kept my attention glued to the story.
The Puzzler’s War is the second book in The Tarakan Chronicles, a story about a post-apocalyptic world struggling for survival. The plot revolves around mysterious mutants called Puzzlers that have the ability to unlock hidden caches of pre-apocalypse tech by solving riddles in dangerous conditions. I reviewed and enjoyed the first book (The Lost Puzzler) and you can find my thoughts and summary of book one in the link. Book two picks up right at the end of book one and follows the aforementioned PA pattern: this book is about why the end times happened and what the world used to look like before. The narration is once again split into two different timelines: the present, where our main cast tries to save/heal the world, and the past, where we learn more about the background and mystery of what is actually going on. While the “present” POVs are the same cast from book one, in the past we leap back to the start of the apocalypse and follow the story of one of the antagonists that caused the end of the world.
The book is great. The characters continue to be interesting and productive; they feel as though they have the agency to actually change the status quo of the world. One specific character, Vincha, felt like she could use a little more work. She pretty much only had one dimension, and that dimension was annoying and critical to the plot so it is brought up a lot. The worldbuilding is phenomenal and greatly helped alleviate my disinterest in reading another similar post-apocalyptic story. While the plot isn’t exactly the first of its kind, the world-building is dripping with love and imagination. Kless’ Earth feels like this strange ephemeral place that is both familiar and deeply alien at the same time. Occasionally, you can feel like you are reading a fantasy story that is pulled completely from imagination. Other times, you can see the world we live in under the surface and feel like you are reading about the place you live now.
This wonderful world-building is enhanced by the additional insight the “past POV” in the narrative provides. In the reader’s mind, Kless’ Earth slowly changes from this scary, magical, and foreign place to the planet we know – but ravaged by human folly and hubris. In the meantime, the “present POV” in The Puzzler’s War does a wonderful job keeping you invested in the story and provides a palpable sense of urgency as the cast needs to make choices around the future of the planet. All of this blends together to make a novel that is easy to pick-up, greatly improves the story that its predecessor told, and sets the stage for the next book.
The Puzzler’s War is an excellent follow up to The Lost Puzzler and broadcasts clear signs that this series will have a fantastic ending. Kless’ imaginative and evocative worldbuilding does wonders to refresh some tired tropes and classic genre stories. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction, I think it is safe to say that The Tarakan Chronicles will likely press a lot of the right buttons. Kless’ mysteries and descriptions will keep you up late into the night, wondering about what could be behind the next puzzle-locked door.
Rating: The Puzzler’s War – 8.0/10