Young adult novels, as a general rule, follow a pretty straight-forward formula, especially if they’re set in a dystopian world. These novels will be presented as a trilogy, with a main character representing good, and the authoritarian ruler (sometimes alien, sometimes not) representing evil. There will be a love story, and it will probably come in the form of a love triangle. Our protagonists will all be under the age of 18, possessing the mental and physical abilities of people much older. We will believe everything that happens in these books, because we’ve never been in a dystopian world — and we don’t know what we’d do if the world, like, blew up.
Rick Yancey’s 5th Wave series follows this formula to a T, which isn’t a bad thing, just a sure thing. Cassie Sullivan is a 17-year-old girl trying to survive in a world that has already experienced four destructive “waves.” The first wave wipes out planet Earth’s electricity, the second sends massive tsunamis, the third infects the population with a virus that only three percent survive, and the fourth sends in undercover aliens to infiltrate the human population. The fifth? Well, that doesn’t become clear until the second book, The Infinite Sea, and we don’t want to spoil anything.
Some people may be familiar with The 5th Wave as a movie, one that came out this past January — starring Chloe Grace Moretz and getting pretty horrendous reviews (please see: 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) But if we’ve learned anything in our YA reading careers it is this: ignore the movies, go for the books. The same holds true with The 5th Wave, an at times disjointed, but ultimately satisfying 500 page dive into a world under fire.
“It was a slow, organic growth,” says Yancey of the novel. “The stories and characters grew as I wrote them.” While this method allowed Yancey to figure out which characters would grow from plot points into protagonists, it also lends itself to some choppy transitions.
The first book opens with Cassie alone in the woods, orphaned, and separated from the one person she has left, her younger brother Sam. “I wanted to jump in feet first after the invasion,” explains Yancey. Rather than go into great detail about the first four waves of destruction, Yancey found it more interesting to see how humans would react when they had nothing left. This can be confusing for the reader who wants to know, as Yancey puts it, “What the heck is happening.” Stick with it, you’ll figure it out.
“It became, ‘Am I gonna live the next day?'” says Yancey of the setting for his characters. Cassie, a fiesty girl named after the constellation Cassieopea, (because, of course), adapts surprisingly well to her new life in a tent in the middle of nowhere. This is one of the series’ flaws: the premise that teenage kids could survive in a post-apocalyptic world is highly unlikely. When you think of the Hunger Games or the Divergent series, you think of dystopian worlds familiar to the protagonists adventuring through them. But just a few months after taking AP English, how did Cassie come up with the necessary skills to survive in a world she didn’t know could exist?
If you push this nagging doubt out of your mind, though, the book becomes an exciting read. How can Cassie wield a gun? Eh, who cares, she’s doing it and the plot’s chugging along. “I always thought it would lean more towards action/adventure,” says Yancey of the series, which, while it has plenty of action, also has a whole lot of dialogue and several love story plotlines.
“It comes down to the existential questions, and it kept coming back to love,” says Yancey. In the first novel Cassie is trying to find the little brother she loves, and she meets a mysterious stranger who falls in love with her. And that’s just the beginning. As the series continues, Yancey veers away from Cassie’s first-person perspective to include the points of view of several other characters. He features strong female characters who have complicated love lives, which is nothing short of refreshing.
We just finished The Last Star, which will be available to the public on May 24. And y’all, it’s worth sticking around for. Yancey gets a little wordy, the characters can irk your nerves, and almost everyone lives longer than the average injured human could possibly endure. But the series finale is a satisfyingly big surprise. And where else can you find one of those these days?