The 5th Wave, Rick Yancey
Putnam Juvenile, May 2013
Reviewed from ARC
Apocalyptic scenario, isolated teen in the woods, romance against-the-odds… we’ve been down this desolate road before. Rick Yancey’s tough-girl protagonist is Cassie (short for Cassiopeia) who is determined to find her younger brother. The 5th Wave goes beyond the familiar premise as a richer and more satisfying doomsday novel. The action is coherent and genuinely thrilling and tense, and the multiple narrating voices with converging plot lines create an interesting structure.
Yancey previously received the Printz Honor for The Monstrumologist. This novel similarly uses horror and is the first in a projected series. Will The 5th Wave make Yancey a twice honored author?
To give you a metaphor in my native tongue: if this were a summer popcorn movie—which it one day may be—it would get two thumbs up, but once Oscar season rolled around, a Best Picture nomination for The 5th Wave would be a long shot.
Cassie, Yancey’s first narrator, is fairly generic as far as teenage female survivalists go. Her personality consists of sarcastic quips, and a bleak attitude despite her strong will to keep moving and living. Roughly half of the book is written in her voice, and Yancey uses her as his authorial surrogate, explaining the waves of the alien invasion, describing backstory, and making tumblr-ready aphorisms like, “It’s the strong who remain, the bent but unbroken … What doesn’t kill us sharpens us. Hardens Us. Schools us.” She’s a character who serves the narrative first, before existing in her own right.
It’s a fine line though between relatable and generic, and I’m still on the fence if Cassie is the former or latter. It’s such a difficult determination to make, especially because the two other principle characters in the book, Ben and Evan, have much deeper inner lives. Where Cassie’s sole motivation is the need to survive and find her brother, Ben goes through this incredible emotional transformation. The invasion has changed him from a normal teenager to a brainwashed army grunt to an enlightened rebel. As a character, Evan is intentionally inscrutable, but more interesting because of this quality.
Initially this disparity between the male and female character development feels uncomfortable, especially when Cassie is written as the kind of girl who says, “Don’t kiss me,” twice—threatening bodily harm to Evan if he kisses her again—but succumbs to the kiss anyway. This is such a dangerous concept to perpetually romanticize. Upon my second reading, I am almost persuaded that Yancey has deliberately crafted Cassie to be utterly normal with one very flawed moment for both she and Evan, but this is your cue to have your comments ready to convince me in either direction.
A consequence of the difference in male and female voice is that when the book switches narration between Cassie, Ben, and Evan, the book also shifts slightly in tone. Cassie’s sections run on silence, memory, and action, giving us a visceral experience of her reality. When Ben narrates, the book becomes a soldier’s story. His voice is surprisingly descriptive, but there is a lack of sentimentality about his living conditions and the grim reality of what he is being trained to do. Evan’s point of view is presented in third-person limited, and his sections are possibly the most interestingly written. A consciousness implanted in a human fetus, he is one of the “others,” an invader in a human body fulfilling his purpose but doubting as well. Evan’s sections feel intimate, contemplative, and elegiac.
The problem with these shifts is when and how they happen. Although there is nothing particularly special about his prose, Yancey is an amazingly good storyteller, which means that as he is juggling the three parallel threads of the novel, sometimes it’s hard to become re-invested in the other stories. For example, there is a stretch of a hundred pages between parts four and seven; Cassie-narrated sections during which Evan rescues her and she stays at his farmhouse. These parts are intimate, like a two-person drama with most of the drama happening in the silence. Yancey separates these sections with a short glimpse at what’s happened to Sammy—written in third person and the only time we read from his perspective—and part six, “The Human Clay,” which reveals Ben’s transformation into the soldier called Zombie. In terms of page count, the parts up to this point are divided evenly, but Cassie has been the reader’s eyes and ears. Once Ben is further developed though in part six, our interest switches to him, making it harder to get back into Cassie’s story. The transitions might have been easier if Yancey used the repeated symbolism that he sometimes employed at the end of chapters (character as battlefield) at the beginning. Even this is not an elegant solution, but something is lost each time we move to another character’s story.
Another quirk of the novel’s style and structure is how tenses are used. Early on in the novel, Cassie lists all of her possessions on her person, including two spiral bound notebooks she is using as her journal, which we are reading. “In case you’re an alien and you’re reading this: BITE ME,” she writes. But, it’s written in present tense. Who writes their journal in present tense? (That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. If you write your journal in present tense, please speak up! This is a major factor in how I’m looking at voice and accuracy in this novel.) I found myself preoccupied with this on my second read, and although it seems to be a small thing early in the novel, there is a moment later on when Evan admits to reading Cassie’s journal. But when he says this, we’re reading Cassie’s journal. So when does she transcribe everything that’s just happened? When the plot moves to Cassie’s infiltration of Camp Haven, I couldn’t stop thinking that all the description was purposefully written by a character after the events had happened. Personally, I had difficulty suspending my disbelief to accept that at some point after the end of the novel, Cassie sat down and transcribed in lucid detail exactly what went down at Camp Haven. Further adding to the confusion is that Ben’s also written in first person present, but there is never any mention of a journal for him, so am I just in his thoughts? Maybe this inconsistency will come together in the sequel due out next year, but it’s a detail that doesn’t quite gel in this book, so it’s hard to support this novel’s authenticity of voice.
(Speaking of authenticity, are there no people of color left in this alien apocalypse? The lack of diversity is not a Printz-standard flaw, but it was something that took me out of the story and struck me as unrealistic. Then again, aliens have wiped out most of the human population so I suppose authenticity is relative in this case.)
Yancey plays around with some big themes: humanity, trust, paranoia, but the development of these ideas is uncomplicated. Evan, the invader with a heart of gold, demonstrates that humanity can be found in even alien consciousness, while Ben and the rest of the teen army show how easy it is to turn fear into hate. Great ideas both, but they’re simple and easy to tease out.
Where simplicity serves Yancey well is in his description of coherent and gripping action. So much of the book is quiet, but in scenes involving running, chasing, or fighting—particularly the novel’s climax in the Camp Haven compound—the language is rhythmic, allowing you to feel the action as you make the picture of what’s happening in your mind.
The 5th Wave is fun but it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. And although there are some inconsistencies that I think could be clarified in the sequel, The Infinite Sea, that doesn’t change that they exist here. In fact, my personal opinion is that the book would be better off if there was no sequel at all; the ending is perfect. What did you think? Good ending, or did you want more? The issues with voice, character, and theme take the book out of serious contention, but perhaps you have a different take? Let us know in the comments!