May 09, 2013


The Fifth Wave. By Rick Yancey. Putnam. $18.99.

     The difference between “highly anticipated” and “tremendously hyped” is largely a matter of who is doing the talking. Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave, a dystopic science-fiction novel for teens, is already optioned as a movie and has managed to generate enough advance publicity so that many people will regard it as a must-read, if only to figure out what all the fuss is about.

     That is good news for Yancey, his publisher and his publicists, but not so good for readers, who will quickly discover that although The Fifth Wave is well put together and hits all the right buttons for its primary genre, it is ultimately not anything particularly special. The “waves” are forms of attack by evil aliens (oh, that’s original) that, at the book’s start, have already claimed the life of the mother of the book’s protagonist, 16-year-old Cassie. Soon Cassie’s father will die, too (this is not much of a spoiler; it is obvious from the start), and Cassie will embark on a quest to find her little brother, who has been taken away – apparently by military operatives who are bringing children to a place safe from The Others (the aliens), but maybe for something more sinister, since one of the rules of Yancey’s post-apocalyptic world is to trust no one (oh, that’s original).

     So the book becomes Cassie’s quest (oh, that’s original) to find her younger brother and figure out what The Others are up to and why they have, like, destroyed humanity. And eventually, she happens to have a chance to confront and hear the story not from a regional leader of The Others, not from a leader of The Others in charge of the entire country, not from one from The Others ruling the hemisphere, but from the Ultimate Supreme No. 1 Top Head of Everything Evil, who has nothing better to do than to chat with a teenage girl and tell her what’s going on (oh, that’s original).

     Cassie narrates most of the book; her little brother, Sammy, who is about five years old, narrates sometimes, too, although “narrates” is an exaggeration – he mostly just describes what he is seeing, which makes sense given his age but also makes dull reading. Cassie herself is rather dull, too, and also somewhat superficial. And she has the usual love interest, another rather dull character (named Evan) whom Cassie is not sure she can trust (oh, that’s original) and who turns out to be – well, that would be a spoiler, but let’s just say the eventual revelation is not much of a surprise.

     The Fifth Wave is the start of a series, which will be all about survival and – want to bet? – the eventual triumph of Earthlings, who will at the end move toward building a new and better world (oh, that will be original). Much of the book is slower-paced than readers will likely expect, spending time setting scenes and creating background that will presumably be referred to again in later installments; as a result, it is longer than it needs to be to tell the story (by about one-third). In some ways, the most interesting character in the book is not Cassie but Ben, a 17-year-old football star on whom Cassie once had a crush (oh, that’s original). Ben is now trained as a soldier, and while sections describing his training are formulaic, he himself seems a more fully formed character than Cassie, who is far too flippant for the circumstances – although Yancey presumably intends her “voice” in the early part of the book to reflect immaturity, since she does seem somewhat more in tune with the horrendous reality around her as time goes on. Still, at a crucial point near the end of the book, amid death and near-death and all sorts of intensity, Cassie is busy being jealous of another girl’s prettiness and “microscopic pores.” Ugh.

     The pluses of The Fifth Wave lie in some of the things Yancey does not do. For instance, he does not show The Others for quite some time – one plot point that does work is that even though 95% of Earth’s population has been destroyed, the survivors are not quite sure what has done this to them. Another plus is that Yancey lets readers know what the first four “waves” were without dwelling on them to such an extent as to distract attention from the story: Wave 1 was an electromagnetic pulse that instantly rendered machines useless; Wave 2 was a set of coordinated tsunamis; Wave 3 was a deadly bird-borne plague; Wave 4 was attack by humans who had been implanted with alien intelligence as fetuses.

     And another plus, at least for marketability, is that The Fifth Wave actually straddles genres, being not only SF dystopia but also romance and quest tale; readers get several plots for the price of one, even if the plots themselves are often unsurprising and tend to have elements that strain credulity rather more than necessary.

     The Fifth Wave is being heavily promoted in two ways: as a teen read akin to The Hunger Games (which, however, is a more-focused trilogy with a much better central character) and as a kind of crossover that will appeal to older teens and even adults, as did the Harry Potter books (forget it). Really, what The Fifth Wave offers is fast pacing in some of its scenes, reasonably good dialogue, consistent writing, a multiple-points-of-view structure, and a number of different characters who can easily be typecast for movie purposes. Indeed, it seems to be written with a future screenplay in mind – you can almost see the point-of-view shifts as they will look on screen. This is by no means a bad book, but it is a very formulaic one – formulaic in multiple ways, given its multiplicity of characters and plot elements. It certainly has big-screen potential, but on the inner screen of readers’ minds, it will appeal almost entirely to younger teens who have not already read umpteen dystopic/romantic/futuristic/alien-invasion novels and who will therefore deem it far more original than it actually is.

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