The Punishments, by JB Winsor

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, JB Winsor, and Boulder Digital Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In this insightful and Orwellian novel, Winsor asks the reader to suspend some reality as he takes things down the rabbit hole and posits an America like no other. With terrorism taking a grip on the American psyche and those agencies tasked with protecting the nation incapable of doing their roles, something has to change. In a future where robots have replaced the common worker, there are stagnant amounts of unemployment and homelessness. The country has turned to fundamentalist Christianity to protect itself and elects officials to run all levels of government with this religious outlook. At the pinnacle of this is the Department of Virtue, which seeks to run America according to Biblical Law, interpreting things literally from the Good Book. With their power, Virtue is able to influence Congress. and the White House to pass legislation to solidify biblical practices. Laws are passed to curb moral inferiority and those who do not abide will soon face punishment. At the head of Virtue is Reverend John, whose theocratic leadership seeks to purify America ahead of the upcoming Rapture, will stop at nothing to minimise opposition through whatever means possible. Erecting neo-crosses in public, rumoured to be a means of spying on the people, Reverend John gathered information on everyone to use when and how he sees necessary. However, not all politicians are on-side, specifically Senator William Thatcher, who tries his best to dodge the all-encompassing Big Brother nature of Virtue. Thatcher is known as a rabble-rouser and his fate will be sealed if he acts on some of the ideas he has been espousing. In order to push forward and show the country (and the world) that Virtue is serious, Reverend John sets about a series of events that capture his most ardent enemies in compromising situations and organises a set of punishments, to instil fear and show what happens to those who violate Biblical Law. As Thatcher works to protect his family, he must bring Reverend John and Virtue to its knees before America and the world succumb to this madman and his antics. A tongue-in-cheek novel worth investigating with an open mind and a critical eye.

Winsor offers a twenty-first century Big Brother meets Animal Farm in this satirical novel. The story does not play out as a strict mockery, evident to the reader who can read between the lines and see how Winsor provides the gaping holes a theocratic approach to governing would lead to the demise of modern America. There is much worth exploring in the novel, from the duplicity of those at the top to the complicity of elected officials when money or favours shape decision-making, through to the shepherd-sheep duality between leaders and the electorate. Winsor goes so far as to show how fear through public scapegoating can bring many into line. The text refers at numerous spots to the parallels between Virtue and Hitler’s Germany, with complete power coming from indoctrination and fear of reprisal. While the story does drag at times, the cross-section of characters with varied backstories and the varied plot angles do provide the reader with much to digest and offers some insight into the horrors that might befall a democracy should religion subsume any and all decisions in order to offer a stronger moral foundation. At a time when the Religious Right seem to feel they are the only true answer to the moral ambiguity rampant in America, Winsor shows how problematic such a pendulum swing might be for all involved.

Kudos, Mr. Winsor for this novel that offers readers a chance to think rather than simply glance at the words on a page.