Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

But if I’m it, the last of my kind, the last page of human history, like hell I’m going to let the story end this way. I may be the last one, but I am the one still standing. I am the one turning to face the faceless hunter in the woods on an abandoned highway. I am the one not running but facing. Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity. And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.

Earlier this year, I happened to meet the editor of Rick Yancey's The 5th Wave at the ALA Midwinter Meeting. I'm not exaggerating when I say that she accosted me, and forced The 5th Wave into my hands, despite my protests that I'm not really a science fiction reader and that I had major burnout on post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels.

She promised that this one was different, that this wasn't like those other books, that if I liked character-driven stories with lots of moral conundrums, I'd love this book (she clearly had my number on those counts). Then, because I was probably still looking doubtful, she told me that The 5th Wave was her favorite book she'd worked on. There was something that told me that this wasn't a line, that she she loved this book that much.

Just a few days later, my curiosity got the best of me and I cracked open The 5th Wave.  Let's just say, I never bring print books with me, instead relying on my ereader or Kindle app to read on the go. However, my review copy of The 5th Wave went everywhere with me while I was reading it--it's simply that excellent.

The 5th Wave opens after aliens have invaded and attacked Earth. First, electricity was destroyed with an electromagnetic pulse; then the coasts were enveloped by rising seas; next, an Ebola-like plague wiped out much of the population; then, what were effectively alien sleeper cells were activated, and the few remaining humans can't trust anyone. 

I know what you're thinking: Another post-apocalyptic novel?

The 5th Wave isn't just another post-apocalyptic novel. It's it's character-driven, it's complexly-plotted, it's frightening. 

While The 5th Wave is written in multiple points-of-view, Cassie, the teen narrator of the largest chucks of the novel, is the character whose voice will likely receive the most attention. She's one of the few who's managed to stay alive during the invasion, but not without a high, high cost. She lost her mother to the third wave (the viral infection), her father in the fourth wave and her younger brother is now missing--Cassie is alone in the world, dodging snipers and making life and death decisions in order to survive.  

Cassie is an interesting narrator, because she's brave without being impulsive, which would normally make her a less believable teen character. But Yancey has done such an adept job of creating the context for her character, a girl who's had to suck it up and grow up in order to stay alive. She has to making decisions in which conventional morality would lead to her own death and it's changed her in this kill or be killed world. And yet, at certain moments Cassie lets her guard down, or is swept up in a moment and she's a bit of the teen she was before everything changed. The best comparison I can make is to Ellie from the Tomorrow, When the War Began series by John Marsden.

While Cassie's narration is so memorable, those additional points of view are what really make The 5th Wave stand out. 

First, there's Zombie, another teen who survived the initial invasion who's been recruited as a solidier, along with a number of other teens and even younger children. Zombie sees what's happening on the ground in a different way than Cassie, because he's with the surviving adults at Wright Patterson Air Force Base (in Dayton, Ohio). These are the adults who should protect these kids, but in this paranoia-filled world where no one can be trusted, they have an agenda of their own. (Side note: I'm crossing my fingers that his point-of-view is more prevalent in the sequel. It was phenomenally compelling and complex.)

Then we have a few chapters from the perspective of Sammy, Cassie's lost little brother. When I first realized there were chapters from the point-of-view of a child, I was less-than enthused, because I generally avoid stories from the point-of-view of kids (Room by Emma Donaghue is a rare exception). However, Sammy's observations from a youthful perspective add so much to The 5th Wave. His naivety contrasts with Cassie's already-world weary perspective and broke my heart more than once. 

The other point of view is that of a "Silencer," an alien consciousness in human form who spends his days picking off stray humans along an Ohio roadway. His perspective lent an even creepier feel to the story and while his point-of-view is fairly minimal, it provided context which bolstered the story for me.

Interestingly, Yancey takes an unconventional approach to both the multiple points-of-view and flashbacks. The points-of-view don't alternate, as is becoming increasingly popular. Rather, alternate perspectives pop in when the story needs it. The same with the flashbacks: it's not a straight before and after structure. The flashbacks are used when they're needed to facilitate the story's unfolding. This strategy makes the story read "bigger" than the simple sibling rescue story that it could have been. 

All of these elements speak to Yancey's skill as a writer.

The 5th Wave never reads as obvious or trite and avoids the pitfalls of so many of the current crop of dystopian/apocalyptic novels. Tiny details often overlooked in lesser novels are woven into the narrative seamlessly (Cassie's search for tampons, for example), much like in the aforementioned Tomorrow, When the War Began series. And like that series, many of the plot elements in The 5th Wave--such as child soliders, sleeper cells and full-blown paranoia--can be read allegorically as relavent to our current world.

I realize this is a bit shorter than my usual reviews, but that's because I'm absolutely astounded at the intricacy of the 5th Wave and even months later (this post has been in my drafts since early February) it's lingered with me to the point it's a challenging novel to discuss without spoiling major twists and turns. It's receiving a huge marketing push from Penguin, and I fully understand why. While it's categorized as young adult, with its appealing cover design and complex, morally-ambiguous story, this is one that adults will surely love and not even realize they're reading a novel marketed to teens.

The 5th Wave is destined for my 2013 List of Awesome and while this first installment does not end in a cliffhanger, I'll be tapping my fingers impatiently until the sequel is released in mid-2014.

The 5th Wave releases on May 7, 2013.

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FNL Character Rating: Tyra 

Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.

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