Review: Severance, by Ling Ma

Severance Ling MaRating: ★★★★☆

Categories: Literary Fiction, Dystopia


In Severance, the world has collapsed into apocalypse after fungal spores infected and slowly killed everyone. Inexplicably, Candace survived, and so did a few other people, who she joined in an attempt to survive.

Disclaimer: Due to current events, if you find the content of the book to be potentially triggering for you, definitely give it a pass. I did not find it was a problem for me, and found comfort in a story that had parallels, but was very different, to our situation and had no stakes on my real life. This is however a very personal experience and I don’t recommend everyone read it at this time.

This is a surprisingly beautiful and character-driven book, unlike any other apocalypse story I’ve ever read. Candace joins a group of other survivors, who have not showed symptoms of the strange disease that slowly kills its victims, taking away their consciousness until they perform nothing but their muscle memory routines, stuck serving dinner, or getting ready to go to work, for weeks and weeks until they starve to death. What starts as a survival measure, slowly turns into a cult and Candace is in more danger than she knows.

The book tells the story in two timelines, the present, where Candace is with the group during the apocalypse, and the past, a few months just before, where she worked in a boring job, and as things unfurl, she is still expected to take whatever commute is available, go to work, clock in, clock out, even as her work thins out as everyone around keeps dying. It was actually pretty interesting, especially by comparing with how things are being done now in face of the pandemic. This is where the novel really shines: showing capitalism failing to protect people, putting economy first, turning a health crisis into something to be made fashionable and profitable somehow. I don’t love the two narratives interrupting each other, but I never like non-linear narratives, and it makes perfect sense why it’s done this way when you get to the end of the book, so I didn’t mind much!

This was a very unique, exquisite novel and one of my favorite reads of this year!

15 thoughts on “Review: Severance, by Ling Ma

  1. I usually read quite a bit of dystopian fiction, and I’ve been doing research into literature and nuclear conflict. I do feel a bit uneasy talking about dystopian and apocalyptic books in the current circumstances – has this been a concern for you? For me, I don’t want to contribute to a climate of fear, and I know books can be a safe retreat or a way to escape in fearful circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely understand your unease talking about dystopian books right now, Isobel! If you’re uncomfortable, definitely give it a pass. Honestly I found the book interesting and not triggering at all, but that’s a very personal experience, and I’m not sure I’d recommend people read it right now. I found however that the book helped me make comparisons to real-life events and put them into perspective, I also enjoyed that it’s a story with a beginning, middle and end, with no stakes for me or my loved ones at all, which isn’t something we have right now (no idea when our real-life situation will have an end). So that is something I found comforting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for sharing your perspective on this, I’ve been wanting to ask fellow readers about it. I think I know what you mean about fiction being a safe space without the consequences of real life. I’m using the time I have at home now to get through some of the books I’ve had lurking on my shelf, but maybe once I’ve made a dent I’ll check out Severence.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you for asking, I’ve in fact added a short disclaimer on the post (which I probably should have done before, but I reviewed this so quickly in between other tasks and did not quite think to do it). It’s important to talk about these things! Especially to consider people’s feelings and mental health in a time like this. Reading Severance provided me comfort, but like you said, maybe for other readers it’s anxiety-inducing or makes them feel more fear. Each one reacts in their own particular way. I hope you’re doing fine and are healthy and safe!

          What are you reading at the moment? I’m trying to get through a few eARCs and also the Women’s Prize Longlist 🙂


    • It’s such a great book! I guess for the current times it could be triggering, but at least for me it wasn’t. I will love to see your thoughts on it! Also I love the cover, and I would have read it for that alone.

      Liked by 1 person

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  3. Great review Naty! I’m so glad you loved this, as it was one of my favorite books last year. I still think about Candace often and will definitely want to reread at some point. I’d actually love to pick up some plague lit right now but am sticking with the Women’s Prize for the moment. (And HOPING that by the time I finish with the longlist the world will be a healthier place and the plague books will feel less relevant!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Emily! It’s most likely going to be among my favorites this year, too! Such an incredible read. And I know, right? I just got such an itch to read pandemic books right now, for some reason. But at the same time I also want to read the light, fun stuff. WHY.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I guess it’s a bit anxiety-inducing for certain types of reader! For me it worked as a comfort, but honestly I don’t think that will be the case for most people. So definitely skip it if you think it’s too heavy or too close to reality! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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