The Plot: It is months after the aliens first came, the Others, and sixteen year old Cassie Sullivan is huddled in a tent, alone with just her baby brother’s teddy bear for company.
Cassie is alone and terrified and surviving. So far, she has survived each wave, the waves that have killed billions and continues to kill the handful of human survivors.
The waves of attack started shortly after the alien ships appeared in the sky. Cassie has survived each one: the 1st Wave when the electricity went out, the 2nd Wave of superstorms that wiped out the shorelines and killed billions, the 3rd Wave of disease that killed billions more, and the 4th Wave, of Others who look like humans and are intent on killing the handful of humans who are still alive.
Before Cassie realized what the 4th Wave was, she waved good-bye to her five year old brother Sammy as he was rescued by soldiers.
Cassie is alone and scared. With the Others looking like any other survivor, can she trust the people she meets? Can she rescue her brother?
Ben Parish is in a refuge camp. Like Cassie, he has survived each Wave. Unlike Cassie, he has no family left. He is given a chance for revenge, for vengeance, for redemption, by becoming a soldier in the attack against the Others. He is being trained to hunt and to kill, along with other children and teens. Children and teens who have been rescued by soldiers.
Who do you trust, when the enemy wears familiar faves? Who is the enemy? And what is the 5th Wave?
The Good: I read this the first time on a plane ride home from ALA Midwinter. By the time I got halfway through, by the time Cassie encountered Evan Walker and was trying to figure out whether she could trust him, by the time Cassie’s former high school classmate Ben was being trained to be a soldier by those I (and Cassie) knew to be others, I was so worried for Cassie and Ben and Sammy that I rushed through the second half of the book, fast reading to find out what happens next.
The second time I read this book, knowing what happened, I was able to sit back and see how the pieces fit together. There is the question of battlefields, and that the battle is not just physical attacks but also what is going on internally. “And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.” There is figuring
This is primarily Cassie’s story, her voice is in the first and last chapters, telling the story, but along the way, other chapters are told through other people’s points of view. That’s how we find out about Ben, and a little bit about Sammy, and a little bit about one of the Others. “The Others are so far ahead of us, it’s like comparing the dumbest human to the smartest dog.”
Before the aliens came, Ben was a golden boy at his high school: charming and athletic, popular, the boy Cassie had a crush on for years. Cassie was boring and average and not really noticed. The truth is, as is shown in The 5th Wave, is we don’t know what we’re made of until bad stuff happens. Cassie, that average sixteen year old, turns out to be brave and strong and resilient. She may cry (“When I cry — when I let myself cry — that’s who I cry for. I don’t cry for myself. I cry for the Cassie’s that gone“) but it doesn’t stop her. It doesn’t stop her from picking up a gun and firing in self defense. It doesn’t stop her from firing when the person facing her may be a dangerous Other or a human. When the instinct is to run or to face what is happening, she faces what is happening.
Ben ran. When Ben had to face the worst, he ran. His running away, and what he ran away from, is why he’s so intent on becoming a soldier. It’s his chance to show that he he can do the right thing, to stand and not run. Like the other children being groomed as soldiers, he discards his old name for a nickname: “Zombie is everything Ben wasn’t. Zombie is hardcore. Zombie is badass. Zombie is stone-cold.” Here’s the thing, though — and the reader knows it before Ben does because of what Cassie has told us — Ben is trusting the wrong people. Part of the growing dread and the reason I turned the pages is knowing that Ben has trusted the wrong people and wondering when he will realize it and what will happen then.
Trusting the wrong people — and then there is Evan. Evan Walker. Should Cassie trust him? But isn’t trust important, part of what makes us human? “How do you rid the Earth of humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.” Whether Cassie should trust Evan is not so much about Evan as it is about Cassie.
The 5th Wave joins my list of Favorite Books Read in 2013, because I adore a book that works on so many levels at the same time. It’s a fast paced turn-pager that also provides much food for thought about what it is to be a human. It gives us the evil alien Others who are intent on eliminating all humans but then gives us a peak into one such Other so that we realize it’s not that simple. There are two equally sympathetic characters, Cassie and Ben, with very different paths — and each of those paths alone makes this an easy book to booktalk. Combined, The 5th Wave will booktalk itself.
And there is so much more! Remember when I mused about characters in books getting their periods? Early on, Cassie is packing her backpack and figuring out what to take? Now, I have to confess to being one of those list-lovers, both in real life and in books, so list = happy anyway. But this list does something else: it makes us think if, when you only have that one backpack, what do you bring? What is worth the weight? Underwear and photos, toothpaste and sardines. And, for Cassie, tampons, because “I’m constantly worrying about my stash and if I’ll be able to find more.” And this is damn near perfect, because it’s realistic. Society is destroyed and you just can’t run down to the drugstore anytime you want. It acknowledges that Cassie is sixteen so getting her period happens and so it’s part of what she has to be prepared for. It’s not a major plot point, but it’s as important to her survival as getting drinkable water.
And then here is something else, there is so much in The 5th Wave I want to talk about and discuss, that this could go on for another thousand words. Like how, just as Cassie cried for her younger, innocent self, I cried, too — and at how The 5th Wave conveyed just how big and small the losses are, to the world, with wave after wave of attack. Like missing hamburgers or forgetting what someone’s face looks like. Or how my thoughts turn to “would I survive” and then “would I want to.”
The 5th Wave is the first in a trilogy. The question I ask anymore for part of a series is, “does the book answer the question it raised? does it give an ending to its primary plot?” Here, the answer is “yes” and “yes.” The 5th Wave reveals just what the 5th Wave is; and there is a resolution to what I see as the main plot. (See how I avoided spoilers there? “Resolution” is so open and I haven’t said what I see as the “main plot.”) In point of fact, the story was resolved so well that it makes me even more curious as to what will happen in the next book.