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The 5th Wave
Rick Yancey
Putnam, 460 pages

The 5th Wave
Rick Yancey
Rick Yancey is the author several books for adults, including The Highly Effective Detective. He is also a produced playwright and former theater critic. He lives in Gainesville, Florida with his family.

Rick Yancey Website
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SF Site Review: The Monstrumologist

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Michael M Jones

When the Others came, it was not in peace. They destroyed our modern infrastructure. They drowned our cities. They sent a plague to weed out the vast majority of the survivors. They enlisted silent killers and deadly drones to pick off the stragglers. And now those few who've made it this far must worry about the rumored 5th Wave, the one that will eradicate the last remnants of humanity and leave the Earth to its new owners.

But we're not down and out yet. Cassie Sullivan is a survivor, a sixteen-year-old girl who's learned how to hide, to fight, to kill. And she'll do anything to find her little brother, last seen being taken away by people who might or might not be the military. She's joined in her quest by Evan Walker, a resourceful yet unpredictable young man whose story just doesn't add up. Cassie may be attracted to Evan, but she doesn't trust him in the least. They need each other, but at some point, they'll have to lay the cards on the table and call each other's bluff.

Meanwhile, the teenager now known only as Zombie is engaged in a hellish boot camp designed to turn kids like himself into ruthless soldiers who can drive back the alien invaders masquerading as normal people. But is he ready to give up his humanity in order to save what's left of the human race? As these stories collide, the full truth behind the Others and the 5th Wave is revealed, but it may be too late for us all….

In The 5th Wave, Rick Yancey blows past dystopian right into a post-apocalyptic wasteland where mere handfuls of human survivors battle against an omnipresent, implacable, invisible enemy. Who can you trust when everyone you meet could be out to kill you? Paranoia runs rampant as our heroes are sucked into the relentless horror of a war we lost before it even began. And mark my words, this is an intense, often brutal, hard-edged look at a devastated world, starring young characters who've already been put through the wringer before being subjected to even worse situations. Cassie's little brother, Sammy, is only five, but he's thrown into the mix with everyone else. Cassie, at sixteen, is already primed to kill or be killed, to shoot first and ask questions later. Zombie is put through a hardcore bootcamp which also requires its trainees to help process dead combatants and refugees. There's no such thing as sunshine or kittens to make this world anything other than a bleak hellscape.

Or is there? Because when Cassie first hooks up with Evan, recuperating in his house after a life-threatening injury, she's able to recapture, briefly, a taste of pre-invasion life, with soft beds and warm food, and it's a bitter reminder at how much was lost in a short period of time. The contrast makes it clear that normality, just inches away, is fragile and transitory, and a swiftly vanishing possibility under any circumstances.

The story starts off fairly slowly, with Cassie's current circumstances as a hard-bitten loner hiding in the woods interspersed with flashbacks describing the downfall of civilization, how technology was disrupted and how billions were killed off in a matter of months. It takes a while for things to really pick up, but once they do, there's no stopping things. Cassie, Zombie, and Sammy provide the bulk of the narrative viewpoints in alternating sections. In this manner, we actually get to see several different sides to the story and the setting, which simultaneously raised and answers a number of questions.

Therein lies one of The 5th Wave's true complexities and strengths. The entire story is steeped in moral quandaries and disturbing grey areas. The Others are presented as relentless aliens who want to kill off humanity and claim this world as their own, and as desperate refugees willing to do whatever it takes to survive. By putting Cassie in the role of someone willing to go to any lengths to defend herself and protect her family, she's put in the same boat... except, of course, that she's not practicing genocide in the process. It's a false analogy, especially when it's later presented that the Others didn't necessarily need to destroy humanity in order to survive. There are times when we're not sure who's good and who's bad, who's human and who's alien, and the conflicting stories we're presented helps maintain the ambiguity and confusion for an effectively long time.

There's a subplot where one of the Others apparently has a change of heart, choosing to side with us, but it's hard to find a lot of sympathy for someone who, as recently as the scene immediately before their introduction, was still actively murdering humans. There's a message in there about how the Others most deeply entrenched in human society are the ones most likely to be tainted/weakened/uplifted/redeemed by the human spirit, but that's the part I find to be the most predictable and most dodgy. This subplot, you likely won't be surprised to hear, also has a romantic undertone, which doesn't exactly help its case. Frankly, I'm with Cassie and Zombie on this: when the enemy can hide in plain sight, it's hard to trust anyone.

Cassie herself is a heck of a heroine. Strong, resourceful, competent through training and willpower, rather than any special upbringing. She's stayed alive this far because of a resistance to the plague, some early foresight on her father's part, and a general unwillingness to slow down and die. She has her moments of weakness, and some of her decisions are rash, but she's still an amazing protagonist, sure to appeal to those who dig Katniss.

Here's the bottom line: The 5th Wave, book one of a trilogy, is an intense, no-holds-barred tale of survival and horror, a post-apocalyptic thriller which seems to draw inspiration from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Puppet Masters as much as it does big-budget blockbusters. It's dark and complicated, violent and multilayered, but it somehow never loses sight of hope or humanity. While I have some minor quibbles about some of the plot points (including what seems to be a rather heavy reliance on coincidence amongst characters and timing), and there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of diversity amongst the characters we see, this is still a strong start to the series, a story that comes out swinging and doesn't let up once. I look forward to seeing what Rick Yancey has planned next.

Copyright © 2013 Michael M Jones

Michael M Jones enjoys an addiction to books, for which he's glad there is no cure. He lives with his very patient wife (who doesn't complain about books taking over the house... much), eight cats, and a large plaster penguin that once tasted blood and enjoyed it. A prophecy states that when Michael finishes reading everything on his list, he'll finally die. He aims to be immortal.

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