For all that dystopias are now the #1 hot genre amongst children and teens (having supplanted vampires for the moment) I’ve yet to have a kid actually ask me for one. It wouldn’t take much. If even one ten-year-old walked up to my reference desk in the library and said, “I want a book set in the future” I’d be satisfied that this is a genre with staying power. Kids don’t ask for that kind of thing, though. They’ll specify mermaids or vampires or mysteries or ghost stories, but never future stuff. That’s where Greg van Eekhout’s The Boy at the End of the World has an advantage, however. Because even if the kids aren’t asking for post-apocalyptic wonders, they are asking me for adventure stories. I’ve even had kids hold up Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and ask, “Do you have anything else like this?” Well, it’s not exactly the same as throwing a kid in the middle of the Canadian wilderness with only a single hatchet but if you were to replace the words “Canadian wilderness” with “post-apocalyptic hellscape” and “hatchet” with “talking robot” then I think we’d be on the same wavelength. Mr. van Eekhout pens for us a fast-paced, engaging, and sometimes horrifying glimpse into one of our possible futures. A place where if the evil sentient robots don’t get you, the talking prairie dogs might.
He wakes up to a world destroyed. Something has gone wrong. Created with an abundance of fishing knowledge, young Fisher emerges full formed from his pod to find that he may well be the last human being on earth. Thousands of years ago humans created bunkers called “Arks” and placed a variety of species in there asleep until they could be wakened. A good plan, until someone sabotages Fisher’s Ark leaving him, by chance, the only creature alive. Determined to seek out other Arks, wherever they might be, Fisher finds himself in a hostile new world where there’s everything from rampaging birds to mechanical killers. Fortunately he has Click, a helper robot of limited means, a mammoth he names Protein, and a native prairie dog with rudimentary English skills called Zapper to help him in his quest.
Of course the book that this reminded me the most of right off the bat was the recent Tony DiTerlizzi novel The Search for Wondla. There are several similarities. In both books a kid, tended by a robot, is forced out of a safe underground existence by a mysterious threat. With the robot in tow the human befriends a big beningn creature and a native creature with the gift of speech, in an attempt to find other humans. There are, however, some distinctive dissimilarities as well. While DiTerlizzi’s book is meant to read more as a quest novel, van Eekhout’s is a survival tale wrapped in a mission. What’s more, while DiTerlizzi’s novel rolls in at 496 pages, van Eekhout’s comes in at a slim 224. That’s part of what I liked so much about this book, actually. I’ve been reading so many novels recently that need a good 50 to 100 pages cut out of them that to encounter something this tight and fast comes as an enormous relief. Here, at last, is a book with which to entice young readers who would balk at books with the roundabout thickness of a loaf of bread. The story begins with a bang, it keeps running even when it’s thinking, and little time is spent kvetching or meandering. The result is a novel that could never been considered dreamy, particularly poetic, or descriptive. It does, however, fill the needs of kids that like their books fast and furious. No objections here.
The writing is a lot of fun too. You’ve got a hero who has been essentially programmed to know certain things. Amongst them is the knowledge of how to swear. That’s fabulous. He also has a wry sense of humor, almost macabre, that serves him well over the course of the tale. For example “If he died, nobody would be around to ask what had finally killed off the human species. Which was a little bit of a good thing, because the answer – ‘They were eaten by parrots’ – was not the kind of legacy he wanted to leave behind.” That’s great stuff. Fits the feel of the kind of novel this is perfectly.
Now I love me a good post-apocalyptic middle grade novel. Periodically the publishing industry will rediscover this genre and go whole hog for it, which I appreciate. It happened in the mid to late-1970s and it’s happening again today all thanks to The Hunger Games. However, dystopian novels tend to be written for teens. Kids are too often left out in the cold, so whenever I see a book that fits I make sure to snatch it up, right quick. That way I get to read great books like Raiders’ Ransom and Fever Crumb with impunity. Unfortunately, most futuristic middle grade fare suffers from one common problem; The authors just can’t resist referencing something contemporary. For the previous two books I just mentioned, there are sly Harry Potter references snuck in there. Ugh. Mr. van Eekhout, to his credit, avoids the Harry Potter trap, but he does put in one McDonald’s reference that threw me out of the story for an unfortunate moment. Ah well. It’s not as if he name drops the current president or anything.
Kids don’t really know what they mean when they ask you for an “action book”. They’re basically just craving something that doesn’t bore them to sleep. It’s what catapulted the Alex Rider series to fame and fortune, and what keeps kids coming back to books when they’ve a host of digital distractions at their beck and call. The Boy at the End of the World is very much of that ilk, but it has more brains than your average airport thriller. Here’s a dire future that looks bad, but has a hero you can emotionally attach yourself to easily and a plot that moves like river rapids. Throw in what may be the world’s creepiest villain (let’s just say it gives the term “earworm” a whole new meaning) and you’ve got yourself a great little book. One that knows what it wants to do and then does it. Just fun.
On shelves June 21st.
Source: Galley sent from author for review.
Notes on the Cover: Greg’s previous book Kid Vs. Squid had a fairly enticing cover when it first came out. There you could see a cocky looking boy posing in front of a gigantic squid with a surprisingly pretty eyeball. Done and done! Here we’ve a bit of a problem. See, Fisher has just woken up at the beginning of the book, naked and panicked. At some point he does indeed get clothing from Click but unless the robot was last seen shopping at Izod this is an oddly cleaned up outfit. Fisher looks like he’s two steps away from punting on the Thames, rather than running for his life in the underbrush. Even the cuffs of his pants are miraculously clean.
On a related note, Click mentions to Fisher that, “Your skin is darkly pigmented to give you some protection from sun exposure.” The kid on the cover looks more like he got a light tan while parasailing last weekend. Would it have killed them to make Fisher black? Heck, you’re hardly showing enough of the kid here to be interesting. Do something original (and accurate to the text)!
- Read the first chapter here.
- Mr. van Eekhout also writes of Tarkin’s Jodhpurs and Dystopia for Kids over at Tor.com.