When they came, everything changed.
But the Arrival did not happen in the blink of an eye. It took weeks for the ship first glimpsed at the outer reaches of our solar system—as yet a speck among faraway stars—to glide its way to its intended destination: Earth.
Humanity spent this time speculating. Watching endlessly looped footage of an alien eye in the sky until we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were not alone in the universe.
What had brought these unexpected guests to our corner of the cosmos? No one knew. But they would, all too soon. In the intervening period, a lot of pointless posturing, a surplus of purposeless panic. In truth, nobody had a clue what to do.
We figured the government sort of did. The government had a plan for everything, so we assumed they had a plan for E.T. showing up uninvited and unannounced, like the weird cousin nobody in the family likes to talk about.
Some people nested. Some people ran. Some got married. Some got divorced. Some made babies. Some killed themselves. We walked around like zombies, blank-faced and robotic, unable to absorb the magnitude of what was happening.
Would it have mattered, at the end of the day, if people had been better prepared? Who’s to say? What happened next would probably have happened anyway.
Long story less long, the aliens waged war. Their first strike took out our electronics, and to them, the half a million casualties that came of this incident was simply a happy coincidence. After all, billions more would be dead within days.
Cassie and her family got off lightly: they survived. For a little while, at least. Seeking safety in numbers, they hole up in a camp commanded by an old soldier, but when his buddies from the army arrive, they come bearing Others. Cassie’s dad dies violently before her eyes, and she has no choice but to hide when her baby brother is taken away in a repurposed school bus.
An experience like this is apt to do one of two things to you. It may break you—make you more afraid, make you an easier target—or it might make you. Cassie comes into her own as a part that latter category. The awful things she’s seen harden her:
When I first came to the camp, I heard a story about a mom who took out her three kids and then did herself rather than face the Fourth Horseman. I couldn’t decide whether she was brave or stupid. And then I stopped worrying about it. Who cares what she was when what she is now is dead?
Having resolved not to be some little lost girl in the world, our lonesome leading lady learns how to fight, how to shoot, how to kill. She means to use these skills to save her missing sibling Sammy, assuming he’s still alive. Sadly, a sniper with other ideas spots her, putting paid to Cassie’s plan. But she does not die. She wakes up in the care of a beguiling farm boy called Evan Walker. A fellow survivor... or so he says.
I’m sure I need not add that there’s more to this young man than meets the eye.
The subsequent sequence seems straight out of Stephen King’s Misery—neither the first nor the last narrative that Rick Yancey’s new novel recalls. At points, I was reminded of The Passage; there are some very I Am Number Four moments in store; an entire section inspired by Ender’s Game; and—inescapably I dare say—The Hunger Games comes up. Cassie is not quite Katniss, but to begin with, they’re certainly similar.
The 5th Wave is a hodgepodge, in short, an amalgamation—however canny—of bits and pieces borrowed from other books. But somehow, it works. Somehow, it makes for an exhilarating reading experience, as relentless and harrowing and inspiring as any of the fictions aforementioned.
I’d ascribe its success to character and narrative in equal part. The plot is perhaps a little predictable, but it moves like a man on fire, allowing us truly few opportunities to dwell on what’s next; even when we see something coming, there’s another twist waiting in the wings. The nature of the titular fifth wave, for instance, is far from the revelation intended, but when the hammer finally falls, it’s still shocking. As Cassie concludes, “There’s an old saying about the truth setting you free. Don’t buy it. Sometimes the truth slams the cell door shut and throws a thousand bolts.”
Yancey isn’t afraid to take his tale to some dark places, either. In fact, in the first chapter, Cassie murders a man by accident, which sets the scene for a procession of tragedies both unimaginably massive and indescribably minor. The effect these have on our protagonist is tangible. She may begin an innocent, but she becomes something far less simple than this, and her development, though accelerated, is never less than credible. I dare say I’d take Cassie’s complexities over the meandering of the Mockingjay any day.
The 5th Wave is primarily Cassie’s narrative, but there are other characters, of course. First and foremost, let me introduce you to Zombie:
There is the snow, tiny pinpricks of white, spinning down.
There is the river reeking of human waste and human remains, black and swift and silent beneath the clouds that hide the glowing green eye of the mothership.
And there’s the seventeen-year-old high school football jock dressed up like a soldier with a high-powered semiautomatic rifle [...] crouching by the statue of a real soldier who fought and died with clear mind and clean heart, uncorrupted by the lies of an enemy who knows how he thinks, who twists everything good in him to evil, who uses his hope and trust to turn him into a weapon against his own kind.
I’ll let you find out how this happens first-hand, but Zombie is a fine counterpoint to Cassie. He doesn’t have her depth, however, his perspective proves crucial, offering an alternate angle on the alien invasion—plus he’s better supported than our central character, by Ringer and Dumbo and Teacup among others... including a little boy known as Nugget.
Whenever there’s a lull in the principle plotline, Zombie’s part of the overall arc is more than able to take the strain, and it’s insidious stuff, ultimately; as discomfiting in its way as Cassie’s strained relationship with her so-called saviour. In the erstwhile, waiting for these disparate perspectives to meet somewhere in the middle is obscenely appealing.
Without giving anything else away, let me say I love how Yancey resolves it all. The 5th Wave is the beginning of a trilogy, so spanners are surely in the works, but the finale is so satisfying that I’d be perfectly happy if the series ended here.
The 5th Wave is a fair way from original, admittedly. If you’re looking for new ideas, you’re not likely to find them here, I fear. That said, this is no ignominious knock-off, more a fearless fusion of initially familiar futures, bolstered by smart, commanding characters and an admirably alarming narrative that chills as often as it thrills.
I say roll on the next wave of Rick Yancey’s YA invasion, because the first phase is tremendously entertaining.
The 5th Wave is published by Putnam Juvenile. It comes out May 7.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.