Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reviews: "The 5th Wave" and "The Green Glass Sea"

We've been inundated with post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels for quite a while now (well, it seems like a long while but I guess the vampire years seemed endless, too), so in the wake of The Hunger Games, it's hard to stand out from the crowd. Initially I heard a lot of good things about The 5th Wave (by Rick Yancey) and then some not so good things (i.e. nothing new, weak characters) so I put it on my "read later" pile, mainly because I was writing a SF novel at the time and didn't want to be distracted.

Then I picked it up. It's hard to read this book without mentally referencing every other novel and movie you've read or seen, that's for sure. I kept seeing pictures in my head of scenes from Independence Day at first, but I did eventually get past that. I don't think the opening line helped: Aliens are stupid. It's the kind of first line designed to snag you in, but is actually misleading. Never mind. I kept reading.

The first point-of-view character is engaging, a girl who ends up alone. One of the few who are immune to the plague that came with the 3rd wave (spread by birds). The waves that the aliens unleash on the world are logical ways to get rid of billions of people, as long as you're happy to wait out the rotting process in your space ships in orbit. The premise of all of this mostly worked for me. What didn't work quite so well was the change of POV narrator, flagged only by a page that said: II - Wonderland.

Took me several pages and some re-reading to work out that I was with a entirely new character. I have to admit I'm likely to get snarky about this in any novel. It's not so hard to signal that to the reader, truly. You're not spoiling anything! There are lots of interesting elements in the novel, including armies of child soldiers and the notion of aliens watching Earth for decades before moving in (not new). Mostly what kept me engaged were the characters. I will say, though, that I suspect if this book ever makes it to the big screen, they'll focus on the special effects and ramp up the Katniss-Everdeen-type female character and the big battles, and a lot of the more interesting stuff will be lost. We'll see.

The Green Glass Sea was an unknown - one of the reasons we still love bookshops. You wander, you browse, you pick up things that look interesting and you take home something you might never have discovered otherwise. Thus I found this book in Chicago and thought - a historical novel set around Los Alamos and the development of the nuclear bomb - from a child's point of view. Great!

Dewey Kerrigan is eleven and her sole parent dad is helping other scientists to build a "gadget". She moves to Los Alamos and lives on The Hill, which is the compound where all the families live while the parents work on the bomb. The second narrator is Suze, who just wants to be friends with the "it" girls and resents having to share with Dewey, who is weird and gets stuff from the dump and builds things. Part of the tension of the story comes from us as readers who know the bomb not only worked but was used on Japan.

But we also know that the testing took place with far-reaching ramifications - the long-term effects of radiation on the environment and the families who picnicked while they watched the bright light and mushroom cloud. We also worry for the kids - what will this mean to their families, their parents, their lives? In any enclosed, isolated community, strange things can happen. The author, Ellen Klages, seems to mostly write science fiction, but this is not SF - it's a terrific historical novel that will bring all the realities of the atomic bomb and its use alive for kids (and adults, I think).

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