Rick Yancey’s “The Fifth Wave”, the internet and the back of the book itself tell me, is the next big thing. Given that the book is also covered with quotes from rave reviews, there’s a movie adaptation, and I found my copy sitting in the limited English novel collection of a bookstore in the outer suburbs of Tokyo, I’d be more inclined to say it’s already at least a medium thing, or the world may even have moved on to another big thing. Still, it’s a thing, and Wikipedia quotes a review that says “The Fifth Wave” “”should do for aliens what ‘Twilight’ did for vampires.”
I like a good apocalypse novel and this is categorised as a teenage fiction. That meant, I reasoned, that it might be an easier and more straightforward read than some of the thornier sci-fi novels I’ve been attracted to in the past. Thus, I found myself picking up and purchasing it, and it became the first book that I’ve managed to read since Mr. K made his entrance.
“The Fifth Wave” is set in the near future following an alien invasion of Earth that, so far, has wiped out a significant proportion of the human race. The main character is Cassie Sullivan, a 16 year old girl trying to survive on her own. Her parents are dead but she has hope that her little brother, last seen being taken away to a military base by soldiers she has good reason to believe are actually working with the aliens (the Others), is still alive. She plans to somehow rescue Sammy or at least die trying, but the whole thing becomes both a bit more doable and a bit more complicated when a young man called Evan encounters her and she has to decide whether or not to trust him
While we also get the viewpoint of Sammy himself and that of one of “the Others”, the other main narrator is Ben Parrish, a boy whom Cassie had/has an obsessive crush on. Wonderfully oblivious to Cassie’s crush and accompanying fantasies and only maybe and passingly aware of her existence, he has also been taken to the military base and is being trained as a soldier to, he believes, fight back against the Others.
I enjoyed the book well enough. The plot was fast-moving and engaging, and I especially liked that some of the typical tropes of apocalyptic fiction, such as the rural survivors, the armed heroes, and even the love triangle, were twisted or even turned completely on their heads. There were some scenes designed to horrify, including a massacre and a scene involving child soldiers and dead bodies, and I think Yancey did them particularly well.
I also enjoyed Cassie as a narrator. Her mix of cynical self-awareness and teenage self-consciousness and optimism made for quite an entertaining read. The other narrators were similarly very readable and provided necessary alternative perspectives.
There are some questionable plot points and as takeover strategies go, it seems to me that those being utilised by the Others are a bit patchy in their effectiveness. There is also a major twist to the whole thing that I personally saw coming a mile off. Still, it is young adult fiction and I thus try not to be too harsh about that sort of thing; I am not the intended audience, after all. Also, I think there is also enough uncertainty regarding what exactly is wrong that the suspense is maintained.
I find it interesting that these books are being compared to “Twilight” because they actually share a huge, similar problem, and that is the teenage female protagonist. While I liked the narration, Cassie is just not adequately fleshed out. The other characters are also pretty two dimensional but Cassie is the main one, and thus she stands out as being particularly problematic. I know she has an unusual name (Cassie is short for Cassieopia) and what she looks like, that she has a younger brother she cares about dearly, and that she has a crush on Ben. We learn what happened to her since the aliens arrived (so to speak).
There’s simply not much else to know, it seems. She had a best friend, and she knows nothing about how she died. We can gather that she likes writing based on the fact she is keeping a journal, and she likes books… and that’s about it. I mean, come on, really. Given that these two things are what any given fiction author enjoys themselves, they have to be the laziest go-to interests an author can assign a character. We don’t know what else she likes or liked, or what interested her pre-apocalypse aside from a possible romance with Ben, or what she hoped to do. Thoughts on college, pets, future careers, her hometown, school subjects she enjoyed? Nope.
The overwhelming impression I am left with is that Cassie’s defining feature is simply that she is a teenage girl. I would find this problematic no matter who a character is, since a gender and age group are not things anyone wants to be solely defined by, but teenage girls suffer from more than enough stereotyping and I hate seeing this propagated further. To top things off, though, the “teenage girl” things don’t always ring true. It takes more than a clunky reference to tampons, male authors, to make a voice adequately female. Even the books Cassie values sound more like those prized by an adult male than something a young woman might take inspiration from.
All in all, I enjoyed the story and the scenario. I think there are interesting ideas, the writing’s good and I am curious enough to know what happens next that, if I can, I’ll probably try to read the next books in the trilogy (book 2 is out, book 3 is forthcoming). I just found myself, yet again, disappointed by a streamlined, fast-paced plot somehow excusing underdeveloped characters, especially when it’s the protagonist, and I hope that the next book/s manage to strengthen them a little.