Fiction Review: The Fifth Wave

I wound up adding The 5th Wave on my reading list when my ten-year old daughter expressed an interest in seeing the upcoming movie adaptation after we saw a preview for it before The Force Awakens.

Rick Yancey's The 5th Wave belongs to the somewhat strange genre of post-apocalyptic young adult fiction. It takes place in the months after an alien invasion which has wiped out civilization as we knew it. The story begins following Cassie Sullivan, a 16-year old girl who is on her own and as far as she knows, possibly the last survivor of humanity. She isn't - and she realizes she probably isn't - but the fact that it is a possibility indicates how bad things have gotten.

Cassie's story bounces back and forth between her present and what led her to her now-solitary existence. Given all the previews for the movie, it's not really a spoiler to explain in very broad strokes what happened - though I'll avoid telling specifically what befell her and her family. A large alien ship arrived above Earth but did not respond to any attempts at communication. After several days of not taking any action, it began unleashing a series of assaults on humanity - the titular "waves". The first wave was a massive electromagnetic pulse to wipe out all electronics. Later, the second wave was a series of coastal earthquakes triggered by dropping large masses. The third wave was a deadly plague which wiped out the great majority of the survivors. The fourth wave consisted of aliens disguised as humans. The fifth wave is the main point of this book.

So, without going into spoiler territory, what can I tell you about this book. The most important thing is the main protagonist, the aforementioned Cassie Sullivan. Cassie is... average, for lack of a better word. She's not dumb but she's not one of the smartest kids in her school. Not athletic. Not nonathletic. Neither a super-model nor unattractive. She had a crush on a boy at her school who barely knew she existed. This description might make her seem boring but she isn't - she's a great character for the protagonist. She's kind, she's determined, and rather snarky, with constant self-aware quips. For example, after the EMP hits and people sense the world might be ending her best friend suggests she proposition her crush. Cassie's narration is a great example of her thought process:
She was right. It was totally unrealistic. Both scenarios, an alien invasion of the Earth and a Ben Parish invasion of me.

However, as the waves hit she resigns herself to the fact then Ben is almost certainly dead along with both her parents and her brother is missing. We learn how all this transpires through her narration and it is her determination to live up to a promise she made to her brother that drives her. She lives in a world of tough choices, where she winds up killing someone out of fear he might be about to kill her.

She's not the only protagonist, but she is the primary one of this novel. Other characters are introduced throughout the novel and sometimes the narration switches to them, either in a 1st person or 3rd person narrative, though Cassie does remain the primary protagonist and it is through her that multiple threads are brought together.

The characters tend to have certain commonalities that run as themes in the book. The first is they have made difficult decisions that fill them with regret - betrayals, mistakes, or just tough calls. The second is the strength of promises and of loyalty - it is what motivates many of the characters in the novel.

What did I think? Overall I enjoyed it. For an adult, it was a fairly quick read. I'd not rate it as one of my all-time favorite books, but it was a very enjoyable and engaging read. It is a rather dark read, though not really any darker than The Hunger Games or Divergent - young adult fiction has certainly gotten darker since I was a young adult. Perhaps the main point of frustration is understanding what the aliens are up to. As Cassie and other characters realize, the aliens could certainly have wiped them out all at once. They had reasons for their waves and reasons for having survivors. These reasons are not revealed in this novel. The next novel, The Infinite Sea, does begin to go into the alien motivations a bit more but still not fully. The third book in this trilogy is due out this year and the build-up regarding the alien motivation will hopefully pay off there - otherwise it will be quite the let-down. The 5th Wave is therefore a rather enjoyable read but is also a part of a larger story that is not yet complete.


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