Cover image of "Lessons Learned," a hopeful dystopian novel

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

When COVID first struck with lethal fury a few years ago, the pessimists among us conjured up visions of a landscape devoid of human life. Bodies in the streets and on the roads. Cities everywhere depopulated. Farmlands lying fallow for lack of attention. Government services failing to nonexistence. And that scenario is the backdrop to Alice Sabo’s five-book series of short dystopian novels, set some six years after Zero Year. But this is a scene full of possibility. These stories center on a makeshift community growing into a self-governing town that becomes the center of gravity for a growing swath of the northeastern United States. It’s called High Meadow, named after the school-turned-medical-center where it’s headquartered. And in Lessons Learned, the fourth of the five books, the resourceful team behind it now leads a community of more than five thousand. It’s that rare thing: a hopeful dystopian novel.

A familiar cast of characters

Sabo’s stories track the lives of a handful of characters in High Meadows’ leadership.

  • Angus and Tilly Moss, the silver-haired couple to whom everyone defers. An engineer, he’s the visionary, planner, and hands-on manager, she the level-headed administrator and problem-solver who oversees day-to-day operations.
  • Nick, a capable former FBI agent who manages trade relations with the outlying farms and villages that supply much of their food.
  • Martin, formerly of the US Special Forces, who leads the militia, now split into three specialized forces to guard the borders, defend the community from raiders, and patrol the lands.
  • And Wisp, a biobot who is an empath, capable of feeling others’ emotions at a distance. He’s the community’s Finder and its first line of defense, who can sense threats from farther away than others.

Together, this leadership team has built High Meadow into a refuge for a fast-growing number of survivors from throughout the region.

Lessons Learned (Changed World #4 of 5) by Alice Sabo (2018) 183 pages ★★★★☆

Aerial view of a suburban community like the one portrayed in this hopeful dystopian novel
Aerial view of a suburban town a little like the community where High Meadow is based. Note the forested area at the back, perhaps leading to farmland not far away, as in the novel. Image: Business Insider

Two notable new characters

In Lessons Learned, two significant new characters emerge. One, Anita, has been hiding out with a dozen others in a house in the forest, ignorant of what’s a-building at High Meadow. But when she flees from a massive forest fire, Wisp leads her and the others in her household through the flames and smoke and bundles them off to see the doctors back in the community center. We see through her eyes how High Meadow operates with refugees flooding in on a daily basis, somehow managing to feed, house, and care for them all—and how, one by one, they gradually find their own niches in the community.

The other newcomer is a man named Jackson who styles himself as President of the United States. He comes with an entourage of lackeys in dark suits, including a “General,” and proceeds to undermine Angus and Tilly’s leadership in a bald attempt to seize power. Jackson, and everyone in his group, consistently refuse to take on jobs at High Meadow, defying the community’s fundamental rule that (after two days of free food), everyone must work to eat.

It’s unclear what “lessons” the author had in mind when settling on her title. But at least some of them must have involved the so-called “President.” How events unfold as Jackson makes his move generates much of the drama in this revealing little novel.

About the author

Photo of Alice Sabo, author of this hopeful dystopian novel
Alice Sabo. Image: Amazon

According to Amazon, “Alice Sabo is the author of over 25 novels in 7 series. Her character-driven stories range across multiple genres including science fiction, post-apocalyptic, high fantasy, mystery, and contemporary fantasy.”

I’ve also reviewed the first three books in the Changed World series:

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