Book Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Book Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

The 5th Wave (The Fifth Wave, #1)Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of alien invasions? E.T.? Independence Day? Close Encounters of the Third Kind? 16-year-old Cassie has news for you: When the aliens do arrive, don’t expect sweet and cuddly. Don’t think that a scrappy band of humans will join together to defeat the invaders, with an inspirational soundtrack thumping in the background. As the startling new young adult novel The 5th Wave makes clear, when the aliens do get here, humans won’t stand a chance.

In The 5th Wave, the end of life as we know it is pretty much a foregone conclusion once the mothership shows up. Forget alien fighter drones swooping screaming through our skies. They don’t need all the flash and boom. This invasion is definitely managed hands-off, and it works.

In the first wave, an electro-magnetic pulse takes out all technology — lights, cars, batteries, phones — in one fell swoop. As disabled planes fall from the sky and stalled vehicles crash violently on the highways, humans start waking up to the fact that their world isn’t really theirs any more. In the second wave, strategic detonations along coastal fault lines cause global tsunamis. Goodbye, sea coasts. Goodbye, 50% of Earth’s human population. The third wave is an airborne toxic event, a deadly strain of the Ebola virus transmitted by birds, wiping out 97% of the humans who’d survived waves 1 and 2. And still, the aliens aren’t done. And still, there have been no landing parties, no Terminators, no robot invaders. The cleverness of this invasion, as envisioned by masterful storyteller Rick Yancey, is that the aliens manage to wipe us all out with what’s already here, no intergalactic technology of death needed. It’s like an alien invasion, DIY-style! Kill off the humans using their own infrastructure, natural resources, and diseases. Very efficient.

I don’t want to diminish the impact of the suspense and revelations, the intense sense of doom and dismay that build throughout this book, and so I won’t go into detail about the 4th and 5th waves, which are insidious, unimaginable, and seemingly impossible to survive. Suffice it to say that you’ll be twisting your brain around quite a bit as you figure it all out.

Meanwhile, what about the people in this book?

Main character Cassie is a typical Middle America high school girl before the invasion begins. She has friends, a loving family, and an unrequited crush on the school football star, who really does not know she exists. As her world is turned upside down and she loses everything, she makes one promise: to protect her 5-year-old brother Sammy, no matter what. But when Cassie sees even Sammy taken away from her, she has to decide whether she can keep going. In a world in which she may be the last survivor, is there really any point to continuing the fight? When it’s safer to be alone than to band together with other survivors, is it any wonder that the humans don’t stand a chance?

Much of the book is narrated by Cassie, but not all. We also get powerful sections focusing on Ben — Cassie’s crush — whose experience post-invasion takes a dramatically different turn after he’s brought into a camp of survivors and trained by the military there to become a killing machine, to fight back, to never give in. But is there something more to the command structure than meets the eye? And how can Ben be sure who the enemy is?

We also meet Evan, a farm boy with chocolate brown eyes, who rescues an injured Cassie, nurses her back to health, and seems to be perfect in every way. All he wants to do is protect and provide for Cassie… and she is just not used to trusting anyone at this point. Is Evan for real, or too good to be true? Yes, she’s lost her ability to trust since the invasion began, but is she really being unreasonable here? As Cassie puts it:

That’s my big problem. That’s it! Before the Arrival, guys like Evan Walker never looked twice at me, much less shot wild game for me and washed my hair. They never grabbed me by the back of the neck like the airbrushed model on his mother’s paperback, abs a-clenching, pecs a-popping. My eyes have never been looked deeply into, or my chin raised to bring my lips within an inch of theirs. I was the girl in the background, the just-friend, or — worse — the friend of a just-friend, the you-sit-next-to-her-in-geometry-but-can’t-remember-her-name girl.

Can Cassie believe that this seemingly-perfect boy really cares for her, or is he playing her in some way? And if he is, what’s Evan’s true agenda?

The 5th Wave strikes just the right balance between human drama and life-and-death action sequences. The tension builds, scene by scene, and the sense of inescapable doom grows and deepens as the book progresses. There are twists and turns galore. At so many points, I thought I had something figured out, only to have all my theories and guesses completely thrown out the window by whatever happened next. The characters are introduced in quick but effective strokes; we may not have known them for long, but we do feel that we know them.

While The 5th Wave feels like a pulse-pounding action ride at times, it also captures the feel of a broken world, post-invasion. Earth itself feels like an alien environment after the first three waves have wreaked their destruction:

The creepiest thing, creepier than the abandoned cars and the snarl of crumpled metal and the broken glass sparkling in the October sunlight, creepier than all the trash and discarded crap littering the median, most of it hidden by the knee-high grass so the strip of land looks lumpy, covered in boils, the creepiest thing is the silence.

The Hum is gone.

You remember the Hum.

Unless you grew up on top of a mountain or lived in a cave your whole life, the Hum was always around you. That’s what life was. It was the sea we swam in. The constant sound of all the things we built to make life easy and a little less boring. The mechanical song. The electronic symphony. The Hum of all our things and all of us. Gone.

I can’t say enough good things about The 5th Wave. I could easily seeing this series (yes, this is the first in a series) becoming as big as The Hunger Games. The 5th Wave is a young adult novel, but it doesn’t talk down or avoid the all-too-real tragedies of a world gone deadly. There’s loss, horrific destruction, death of loved ones, cruelty, and despair. But there’s also tenacity, loyalty, love, and determination. The handful of main characters are not cookie-cutter archetypes; instead, we see flawed, identifiable young people, each struggling with choices, each lacking key pieces of information, but having to do the best they can with what they know and what they can figure out. Cassie, Ben, Evan and others are dealing with life and death decisions in a vacuum, with shades of gray and no clear right or wrong. We come to care about these characters deeply, and even when we don’t quite know what’s going on or who to believe, it’s a testament to the strength of the writing in The 5th Wave that we want so badly for them all to be okay.

The 5th Wave is scary, suspenseful, and intense, impossible to put down, and — once finished — really hard to stop thinking about. I broke my “no new series” rule for this book, and I’m not sorry! I just wish we didn’t have to wait (probably until 2014) for the next book. Check this one out — but be prepared to stay up way past bedtime. Once you start, you won’t want to stop.

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