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Severance by Ling Ma
Sci-fi

Severance

Debut

We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Ling Ma, on your first book!

YEARLY LOOK-BACK

Once a year, we break our own rules and share a book from earlier in the year that wowed us.

by Ling Ma

Excellent choice

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Quick take

This inventive satire about the end of the world as we know it is one we just didn't want to miss in 2018.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NonLinear

    Nonlinear timeline

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Quirky

    Quirky

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Literary

    Literary

  • Illustrated icon, Icons_Millenial

    Millennial

Synopsis

Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.

So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies halt operations. The subways squeak to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.

Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Severance.
Severance

Prologue

After the End came the Beginning. And in the Beginning, there were eight of us, then nine—that was me—a number that would only decrease. We found one another after fleeing New York for the safer pastures of the countryside. We’d seen it done in the movies, though no one could say which one exactly. A lot of things didn’t play out as they had been depicted on-screen.

We were brand strategists and property lawyers and human resources specialists and personal finance consultants. We didn’t know how to do anything so we Googled everything. We Googled how to survive in wild, which yielded images of poison ivy, venomous insects, and bear tracks. That was okay but we wanted to know how to go on the offensive. Against everything. We Googled how to build fire and watched YouTube videos of fires being lit with flint against steel, with flint against flint, with magnifying glass and sun. We couldn’t find the requisite flint, didn’t know how to identify it even, and before we tried using Bob’s bifocals, someone found a Bic in a jean jacket. The fire brought us through the night and delivered us into a morning that took us to a deserted Walmart. We stockpiled bottled water and exfoliating body wash and iPods and beers and tinted moisturizer in our stolen Jeeps. In the back of the store we found guns and ammo, camo outfits, scopes and grips. We Googled how to shoot gun, and when we tried, we were spooked by the recoil, by the salty smell and smoke, by the liturgical drama of the whole thing in the woods. But actually we loved to shoot them, the guns. We liked to shoot them wrong even, with a loose hand, the pitch forward and the pitch back. Under our judicious trigger fingers, beer bottles died, Vogue magazines died, Chia Pets died, oak saplings died, squirrels died, elk died. We feasted.

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Why I love it

Look, I want to be a good book-mom here and say that I love all our selections equally. But the truth is, there are a few reads from this year that I absolutely adored—For Better and Worse and An American Marriage come to mind—above all the others. And the book I loved most of all in 2018, the queen of the stack (if you will), is Severance.

The story has two plotlines, a Before and After. Before: Candace Chen, a twenty-something year old in New York City, toils at a totally unglamorous book production job, so mired in the details of Bible manufacture (polyurethane and sateen, anyone?) that she doesn’t realize a sudden pandemic is ringing in the apocalypse. After: Candace and a ragtag group of survivors flee west, trying to avoid encounters with the 99% of the world that the plague has reduced to (harmless) zombies—and scavenging for food, pills, and marijuana.

I don’t normally dig post-apocalyptic books because they always seem to devolve into the same stomach-turning quagmires of lawlessness and starvation. But in Severance, the end of the world is signaled not by tribes of fearsome cannibals, but by the gradual dismantling of corporate life; emails go unanswered, office branches are closed, and one by one, the great tentpoles of capitalism fall. That’s why I loved this book—it’s not so much scary as absurd, and more thoughtful than action-driven. It’s I Am Legend for the plugged-in, globally conscious, thinking woman. I could not be more obsessed.

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Member ratings (6,378)

  • Isaac W.

    West Hollywood, CA

    I love it when a book transcends categorization! Yes it’s apocalyptic but it’s steeped in both Eastern & Western mythology & philosophy & it’s a love story and a ghost story...it’s a wonder to read!

  • Taylor W.

    Boise, ID

    Slightly disturbing to read in today’s times because of all of the parallels, and for that reason I give it a Love. You can’t tell me Ling Ma didn’t divine the future a little bit while writing this.

  • Rachael H.

    Ferndale, MI

    Attempting a unique take on an old story doesn’t always work out - but I found this post-apocalytic tale relatable & interesting. The only downside is that we don’t get to see more of Candace’s story.

  • Katie M.

    Lincoln, NE

    Amazing!! Super relevant for the post-covid world we live in, written 2 years before it’s time. A bit hard to tell when characters are talking though as the author doesn’t use “ “ quotation marks.

  • Laura D.

    Taylorsville, UT

    It’s about perseverance and being creatures of habit even when everything else fights against us. It’s a charming, satirical and odd book. I enjoyed it but don’t think I could get anyone to read it.

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