'The 5th Wave' lives up to the hype

Aug. 15, 2013 @ 09:53 AM

 “It’s going to be the next big YA book,” a publicist told me about Rick Yancey’s “The 5th Wave” (G.P. Putnam, ages 12 and up). This is the kind of comment a reviewer has to weigh. Is this sales spin, or a truly remarkable book that will captivate young audiences — and me? The only way to judge the hype is to read, or listen for myself. The last time I’d heard that kind of pumping, a publicist was recommending Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.” I devoured that book in a weekend and have watched its sales and fan base grow ever since.
“The 5th Wave” was released in June with a gargantuan first printing of 500,000 and a sizeable $750,000 devoted to advertising. Since publication, it has no less than eight starred reviews and movie rights have been purchased. Despite all, I knew “The 5th Wave” might be a hard book for me to love. First, it lands squarely in one of my less favorite genres, dystopian fiction. Adding to my prejudice, this book features aliens. Right away I placed it in the same category as the plethora of books about werewolves and vampires, that is to say, books on my “not excited to read” list.
Yancey has proved himself with two successful series. “The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp” (Bloomsbury, ages 11 and up) draws on Arthurian legend, the hero being a descendent of Lancelot. He won a YA Printz Honor for “The Monstrumologist” ( Simon and Schuster, ages 12 and up), the first of a Dickensian-toned Gothic horror series. 
Yancey broaches his science fiction by plunking us down on an Earth we can recognize, though it’s been transformed by four waves of alien attacks. The human population has been reduced by 93 percent -- first by an electromagnetic pulse that knocked out all machines, then tsunamis that destroyed coastal cities, followed by a plague carried by birds. During the 4th Wave, humans have been implanted with fetal alien intelligences. 
Yancey gives us an intriguing guide in 16-year-old Cassie. She’s trying to adjust to the fact that Ben, whom she’s been crushing on for years, may never acknowledge she exists when the waves hit. Rapidly, she fill us in. First she loses cell service, then both parents, her adored younger brother is hauled away and before she adjusts to these changes, she’s blown away a wounded guy with an M-16 in a convenience store.  Turns out the thing he’s hiding is not a gun, but a crucifix … so maybe he wasn’t a bad guy. The thing is, how’s a girl to know?
Even a non-science-fiction lover like me will be wooed by the intelligent, witty, sassy Cassie whose attitudes and approaches are reminiscent of Katniss Everdeen. Cassie’s imagery quickly gives us a sense of her world and herself. She laughs at humans’ supposition that aliens were stupid and working to be free of them “like a cockroach working up a plan to defeat the shoe on its way down to crush it.” She bets they “knew about the human aliens we imagined and I bet they thought it was funny as hell.” 
Cassie comes alive even intensely in the audio version when Phoebe Strole gives her voice (Penguin Audio, unabridged, 12 hours, 41 minutes). Strole accents irony and sets the narrative tone for a book filled with reversals and the plucky characters who navigate them. She also makes room for Cassie’s many moods and emotions—self-deprecating humor, determination to find her brother and constant confusion.  Cassie’s got a lot to contend with and Strole makes the tension real and Cassie’s strategizing make sense in dire situations.
It’s not long before Cassie finds herself wounded by a sniper, hiding under a Buick and wondering if she’s the last human left on earth. Enter the handsome, protective Evan Walker. Slowly the cautious, acerbic Cassie begins to let down her guard. But Evan has a mysterious side and hidden secrets. Who is he really? 
Presiding questions throughout the book are: Who is he and who am I now? A secondary character, “Zombie,” faces the same issues. Only months before the 17-year-old was worried about sports and summer employment, but after lingering close to death, he’s immersed in a rigorous, brutal military training to ready him for killing aliens. In the audio, Brandon Espinoza, takes the male parts — the emotion-stilted Evan and determined “Zombie,”, whose fleeting feelings are sublimated to survival.
The characters focus on survival, wondering if they will endure the final unknown 5th Wave. But there is a greater war going on, a war where the enemy looks like the friend. Readers and listeners will be driven through plot twists and turns by the mix of romance, suspense, mystery and uncertainties that sweep one through pages like a wave that can’t be stopped. 
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.