Jul 5 2012 11:00am

Apocalypse In Aisle Five: Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne

A review of Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A disparate assortment of kids are forced together by desperate circumstances to form a mini-society in order to survive. That’s right, I’m getting the Lord of the Flies references out of the way early. Because this? Is not really like that. Monument 14 is your basic end-of-the-world, apocalyptic scenario, where a natural disaster is just the beginning of a harrowing ordeal for a group of teens and pre-teens.

The time? 2024. The place? Monument, Colorado. The problems? Are just starting.

A freak hailstorm forces fourteen kids—six high schoolers, 2 eight graders, and six younger children—to seek refuge in Greenway, a Wal-Mart-like superstore otherwise devoid of inhabitants. Instructed to stay there while the only adult—a bus driver—goes for help, the fourteen kids settle in for the time being. They soon learn that a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands triggered a mega-tsunami and supercell storms. The East Coast is drowned. The Rockies are devastated. And then an 8.2 earthquake hits, causing further destruction and releasing clouds of toxic chemicals from NORAD storage facilities.

So…we have volcanoes, killer hail, earthquakes, tsunamis, and toxic chemicals. It’s like an all-star lineup of things which are bad for you. It gets worse: as our heroes soon discover, the chemicals which have now saturated the air for hundreds of miles in every direction have different effects depending on your blood type, including hallucinations, blisters, and episodes of deranged violence. So now they’re trapped in the Greenway with no way out and no way to find help. On the bright side, they still have power and a store the size of a small town filled with food, water, and supplies of every sort.

To their credit, they soon form a rudimentary society, with the ever-prepared Niko assuming charge while the narrator (Dean) handles cooking, and the super-efficient Josie turns their refuge into a living space and gets the younger kids in a semblance of order. Sadly, not everyone’s on track: football hero Jake is more interested in getting drunk and high than in survival, and Dean’s crush Astrid has a breakdown and vanishes into the depths of the store. Personalities clash and tensions rise, with each of the fourteen responding to the crisis in their own way. Some just want to go home, some are in this for the long haul, and some are ready to give in to their base desires.

Everything changes when two adults find their way into the Greenway as well, giving our heroes a smidgen of hope that rescue is still possible, while upsetting the fragile balance of power. What happens next will test everyone’s resolve.

There’s plenty to like about this book. I was particularly interested in seeing how such a random assortment of people managed to create a mini-society, especially when almost half of their number were in kindergarten through third grade. Not exactly society-building material there, right? The whole process of eking out a survival in something like a Wal-Mart, where you have almost everything you need, has always been a topic of some interest, and it was handled quite nicely here. The range of personalities made for plenty of good storytelling and conflict, although some of the characters were a little too annoying for my liking. The buildup of tension and inevitability was well-paced, though I was almost disappointed when the adults showed up to disrupt the status quo. I could have followed our heroes for a while longer.

On the surface, this is a pretty strong book. For an apocalyptic scenario, there was still a fair share of hope—something that’s often in short supply once the world starts to end. And sure, the combination of disasters does seem like overkill, but when you’re ending the world, why not go for broke?

Now, I did have some issues with the story. First of all, the dialogue felt stiff in places. With Dean’s first person narration, allowances can be made for certain clunky phrases or awkward descriptions, and no one expects little kids to have a perfect grasp of grammar. However, there was just something off every once in a while about the dialogue, especially coming from adults or older teens.

Second of all, there’s an element of predictability which creeps into books like these, where you have to introduce a problem or two, or else. In this case, it was the introduction of the adults, Mr. Appleton and Robby. Perhaps I’ve read too many of these things, but it seems like any time you put an adult into a situation like this, they turn out to be nothing but trouble. And in this particular case, something ugly happens.

And that brings us to my third issue. One of the characters is an eighth-grader, a thirteen-year-old named Sahalia. Fashion-conscious and self-aware beyond her years, caught in that awkward transitional stage between “little kid” and “big kid,” she chafes at the boundaries and seems lost, identity-wise, for much of the book. Until she starts trying to use her sexuality as a tool. The end result is a pair of scenes which start at awkward before quickly moving into uncomfortable, and while nothing truly objectionable happens, it still felt like a giant red button of “Oh Hell No.” While it’s not entirely unreasonable under the circumstances, it’s not something one ever expects or necessarily wants to think about. It makes for some interesting character growth later, but at an odd contrast to the other issues at play.

It’s interesting that the three older females of the group (Astrid, Josie, and Sahalia) fall into female-oriented roles. Josie becomes a mother figure (despite being fifteen), Sahalia attempts to use her body, and Astrid is primarily the object of desire for the narrator, despite being absent from much of the onscreen action. Astrid and Josie are also cast as girlfriend/hooking-up objects for the various guys of appropriate age. Meanwhile, the guys fall into leader (Niko), cooking (Dean), rebel (Jake), technology (Dean’s younger brother Alex) and sidekick/secondary rebel (Brayden). The six younger kids fall into their own roles, but not so gender-defined. On the bright side, the cast is racially diverse and it’s easy to tell them apart based on behavior and attitude. By the end of the book, everything’s changed in significant ways, so we’ll see how matters sort themselves out in the sequel.

Ultimately, I think that this is a strong book with a few major flaws. I wouldn’t say any of the issues I had with Monument 14 are deal-breakers, but they do prevent this from being a much better offering. As a fiction debut (Emmy Laybourne is an actress and screenwriter), it’s a nice beginning and Laybourne shows plenty of potential.

For those interested in more YA novels featuring people trapped in buildings, I suggest No Safety In Numbers (thousands trapped in a mall due to a biological weapon) or This Is Not A Test (kids trapped in school thanks to zombie attack) or The Enemy (kids trapped in grocery store because of not-quite-entirely-zombies).

Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Scheherazade’s Facade

James Davis Nicoll
1. James Davis Nicoll
They soon learn that a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands
triggered a mega-tsunami and supercell storms. The East Coast is
drowned. The Rockies are devastated. And then an 8.2 earthquake hits

It's stuff like this that makes geologists cut themselves.
James Davis Nicoll
2. James Davis Nicoll
To be less terse: if a megatsunami makes it to the Rockies, weather probably isn't going to be a big issue for most people in the US. I am going to go out on limb here and speculate if anything happens to the Rockies, it is not as that sentence implies directly related to the tsunami.

Why would a East coast megatsunami trigger a quake in Denver?
James Davis Nicoll
3. Cat
S.M. Stirling's The Peshawar Lancers deals with a worl after multiple large meteors hit the Atantic Ocean, and he makes it clear that the only areas affected are the coastal plains and the river valleys them. Tsunamis don't trigger earthquakes!
Michael M Jones
4. MichaelMJones
In trying to describe the various disasters, I may have been slightly unclear. The tsunami took out the East Coast. The supercell storms hit the Rockies, causing the killer hail among other problems.
I can only assume that the volcanic eruption is what ultimately caused the earthquake as well. Sadly, I never was that good at Earth Sciences; my eighth grade science teacher seriously tried to convince us that North Dakota was a government plot and didn't actually exist.
James Davis Nicoll
5. Resonant
"North Dakota was a government plot and didn't actually exist."

Of course - check out its supposed location - it's actually NORTH of parts of CANADA! Must be fiction.
Carrie Vaughn
6. Carrie_Vaughn
Yeah, so, I went to high school in Monument, Colorado. No joke.

I may have to read this just for that. But I'm wondering, if the author isn't actually from that area, why she picked Monument. Very curious...
James Davis Nicoll
8. James Davis Nicoll
Yeah, so, I went to high school in Monument, Colorado. No joke.

I may have to read this just for that.

As I discovered from such SF works as I'm Putting My Kids Through College Alternate American Civil War by Harry Turtledove or Sawyer's WWW series, generally authors setting stuff in my hometown either get outright wrong or produce something so bland aside from the odd placename or two it could be anywhere in Canada. Even The Adolescence of P1 got a lot of details wrong and its author was a UW student.

1: Anyone interested in an idea for an AH where the American revolution isn't a consequence of the Seven Years but rather the same problems that led to the English Civil War and where the colonists are led not by George Washington (not born yet and probably butterflied away) but Oliver Cromwell, who had considered emigrating to the colonies at one point? Free to a good home.

2: And even there, Canadian so utterly fail to grasp the concept of unique place or streetnames, even those won't necessary mark a specific city.
James Davis Nicoll
9. S.M. Stirling
Generally, I'm in favor of parsimony when it comes to megadisasters.

Also, unless the reviewer is getting it wrong, the author knows nothing about war gasses. To begin with, NORAD (NOrth American Aerospace Defense) has nothing to do with storing them.

And there aren't any war gasses that have the described effects. The stuff that -was- stored (we started decomissioning it some time ago) is all binary nerve agents.

They just kill you.

This is simple stuff you can look up.
James Davis Nicoll
10. S.M. Stirling
"And where the colonists are led by... Oliver Cromwell".

Not very credible, though AH is the ultimate non-falsifiable hypothesis.

In the mid-17th century the English colonies were too weak, too small, and too scattered to make a serious attempt at independence. They were still fragile communities of foreign-born immigrants clinging to the tidewater and dependent on fresh recruits and other support from the homeland.

Also, the biggest (Virginia) was strongly Royalist in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms; the first Washington there was a Royalist exile, who fled like many others to get away from the Puritans.

New England supported the Puritans, of course, but it and the Chesapeake were separated by hundreds of miles of wilderness, Indians, and Dutchmen.

Independence didn't become a practical proposition until the settlers were much more numerous, no longer seriously threatened by the Indians, and mostly native-born. That didn't happen until well after 1700.
Michael M Jones
11. MichaelMJones
@9: The only explanation I can think of to counter your argument here is that the book takes place several years in the future. Long enough for NORAD to decide, for whatever, reason, to store chemical weapons in Colorado Springs.

Sadly, with kids as the protagonists and outside news sparse, we don't get much more than a token "this is immoral" and "not if the government does it" argument. We never really do learn what's behind the origin of the compounds. Only that A) they deliver various debilitating effects corresponding to blood type, and B) it also forms some sort of "magnetic blackout cloud" covering an 800-mile radius of the area, unable to be dispersed by rain or wind. Future Science, everyone!

As for those wondering how accurate the story is to the town it's set in, don't hold your breath. 99.5 percent of it takes place in the superstore. There's a brief excursion outside which mentions a few roads and the Lewis-Palmer Regional Hospital.
James Davis Nicoll
14. Reed Turner
It annoys me that this is eactly like my two favorite books (Gone by Michael Grant and Trapped by Michael Northrop) combined. It has the exact same plot, characters... the whole deal. If it weren't exactly the same as them, then it would be a pretty good book. I would've been ok to have bits and pieces of "inspiration" from those other books, but Monument 14 is a total copy.

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