That’s how Zoe says she feels about a recurring dream that she’s been having; she’s both terrified by and curious about how it plays out.

Simon & Schuster, 2012

That’s exactly the response that a number of readers will have to White Horse.

Alex Adams’ debut novel contains a lot of conflicting emotions.

Falling in love is described as “‘Great and terrible. Like Oz.”

And when Zoe Marshall opens a fortune cookie, she finds “Welcome change.” So ironic. “I read my fortune until I laugh. I laugh until I cry. I cry until I sleep.”

The kind of change in Zoe’s life is the unsettling sort. This is not the little white horse of Elizabeth Goudge’s magic tale for children.

“A few months ago I was living a normal life, doing a whole lot of not much, and a couple weeks ago I was stopping a rape in progress so that a young woman might have a chance at survival.”

White Horse is an infection. Humans who are infected with it mutate in unexpected ways.

Ninety percent of the infected people die. Of the remaining ten percent, five percent live on (immune maybe) and five percent mutate in a way which allows them to continue living, or, more accurately, surviving.

Because living just isn’t what it once was.

Nothing is.

The book is populated with the kind of nearly-familiar language that reflects this new reality, and the structure mimics it as well.

“The once-woman twitches like a dog mid-dream.” There is enough of the human left in her that it’s recognizable, but barely. This monstrosities are all-the-more monstrous, however, not because of the mutation, but because of the remaining human elements.

The narrative, too, is structured in segments which begin either “Now” or “Then”. Because of course that’s how you would measure time.

Then, the world ran with money. Now, money is useless; a ticket can be purchased with a pint of blood.

Then, Zoe worked for Pope Pharmaceuticals. Now, she journeys towards an end that she has imagined for herself.

It’s nearly always raining. Most days include a fight-to-the-death, which she hopes won’t be her own. How likely it is that her destination has anything to offer other than the new reality she faces every day of her journey?

It doesn’t matter how likely; what matters is that she still hopes.

After what happened, is there still room for hope? One often hears dystopia readers complain when there isn’t enough information about how this world turns that apocalyptic corner.

(That always makes me smile; it seems like a veiled request to be excused for living a life that has nothing sustainable about it, as though, if only the novel declares that it’s a nuclear war or a mutated virus, every reader can shelve their personal concern about peak oil and climate change.)

White Horse does grapple with the “How” question; it doesn’t simply introduce the reader to Now and leave Then wholly to the imagination. And the answers that are provided are slowly released throughout the novel, adding to the suspense.

The structure is somewhat complex; those readers who seek a straightforward chronological recounting might be frustrated by the literary back-and-forth-ing. Zoe is at the heart of the novel, her characterization developed through scenes and her inner thoughts, rather than through oblique narrative statements, but this is primarily a plot-driven novel that succeeds because the characterization remains strong.

Alex Adams adds to the suspense by pulling the reader across time sharply, establishing tenuous present-day alliances against the backdrop of other relationships that have, since, crumbled. She moves from scene-to-scene abruptly, so that the tension naturally rises exponentially.

The language is straightforward, with only the occasional figurative bit. “The clouds lift their petticoats for just a short time, long enough for the sun to dazzle us.”

Throughout, the emphasis is on fast-paced prose — some very short sentences, even some fragments, designed to keep the pages turning — with a good bit of dialogue.

Raging and retching, gnawing and snarling, bruising and beating, hysteria and, yes, hope: White Horse is a horrifying gallop of a read.

Want more? Critical acclaim here. Reading Guide here. The author’s site here. Enjoy!