In this novel featuring all the classic catastrophes of climate change but not the usual cause, the hand of God and the human hand are difficult to tell apart. Assigning responsibility is almost impossible here, and violence in the name of justice is all too common. Mazzy, a soldier in the Army, is deeply complicit — in her dealings with the U.S. government no less than with the fundamentalists. Still, the novel doesn’t seem to treat her actions as punishable crimes. It closes with a feast of golden berries the size of plums, picked by Ava Lynn, Mazzy’s lost sister. The ending doesn’t fully acquit Mazzy, but it does look like another beginning.
The scenes of Mazzy surrounded by the trappings of power—including a number of actors who have sought to curry favor with the breakaway regime—take on an especially stark tone, as she attempts to keep her loved ones safe without losing her soul in the process. But it also reveals one of 40’s more frustrating elements...'Mama thought I was too bright and headstrong for the military,' Mazzy recalls early in the novel, but the version of her that we see for much of the book feels less proactive than reactive ... tonally, it doesn’t always come together; for me, the most memorable scenes in 40 were when Heathcock ratcheted things up to an operatic level—that early moment with the lions, say, or the way several plot threads converge at its conclusion. But in trying to split the difference between a psychological study of the trappings of power and an almost allegorical account of where one nation might be headed, 40 doesn’t make as much of an impact as it could.
Heathcock’s dystopian tale, set in a near-future America decimated by the ravages of climate change, conjures a haunting mood despite an abundance of familiar tropes ... Mazzy remains a passive character through much of the action, becoming embroiled in a revolutionary plot she doesn’t really understand, and her dour, humorless perspective, while understandable, casts a pall over the punishing narrative. Ultimately, though, Heathcock produces striking alchemy from these unpromising elements, as the cumulative impact of elusive, evocative details and a growing sense of moral horror deliver an emotional wallop that leaves the reader feeling unnerved and strangely bereft ... The dystopian ingredients are familiar, but Heathcock combines them in a potent metaphorical stew.
... tepid ... An engaging setting can’t entirely disguise that this is by-the-numbers postapocalyptic fare, and Mazzy isn’t much of a protagonist. It works as a diversion, but don’t come expecting staying power.