With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them.
Book: Michael Grant’s Fear, published April 3, 2012
Plot: An impenetrable dome suddenly appears over a 20-mile area around Perdido Beach, California. Simultaneously, everyone over the age of 15 disappears from inside the dome. The remaining residents, from infants to teenagers, are left to build their own society, attempt to unravel the mystery of what happened, and deal with a wide variety of threats, from internal discord to lethal mutated animals and a strange psychic evil intelligence. Compounding the problem significantly, many of the kids left behind have rapidly developing supernatural abilities, from telekinesis to teleportation to energy manipulation, and a number of them are unstable, power-hungry, sadistic, or even psychotic. In the latest book in the series, Fear, the dome starts changing for the first time since the initial event, gradually blackening and threatening to leave the remaining kids trapped in the dark.
Series status? Fifth in a series that will reportedly conclude with volume six some time next year. Each book centers on new developments in the protagonists’ fishbowl world—a sudden spreading fatal disease, a rash of starvation as the packaged food runs out—but each volume also continues the ongoing story of the major surviving characters.
YA cliché? The series, which launched with Gone in 2008 (more than a year before the release of Stephen King’s Under The Dome, about another small town encased in an inexplicable impenetrable bubble), centers on the YA standby of teenagers with special powers, and adds in the tropes of an adult-free world and an essentially post-apocalyptic setting. In some cases, it reads as a coming-of-age story, though the focus is more on a group cast and the unfolding action-adventure than on following any single character. In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story for the community itself, as one group of kids, increasingly led by 14-year-old Sam Temple (himself a bit of a cliché, as the reluctant messiah) and his crush object Astrid Ellison, deals first with the chaos caused by kids running wild, with no supervision or responsibilities, then with the dangerous band of kids from a secluded private school, then with a growing number of supernatural threats.
As of Fear, though, the series has left behind a lot of its early clichés and developed into a more complicated, multifaceted saga. Many of the transparently “good” or “evil” characters have switched sides or lost their way. Characters struggle with the big questions of identity, purpose, and responsibility as they take on adult roles and figure out what they do best, how to put that to use, and how to manage a stable, self-sufficient community. Sam in particular is a well-drawn character who, in Fear, repeatedly faces down his own petty weaknesses, particularly in his willingness to ignore difficult problems, like how to save his community as the dome goes black, in favor of easy ones that involve physically fighting his enemies.
Bad sign: Grant’s prose is occasionally repetitive and sometimes astonishingly simple and blunt, which contrasts oddly with his attempts to bring across complicated internal divides and emotional developments. For instance, the clash here between the evocative thoughts of the once-religious Astrid facing her own atheism, and the response: “‘I didn’t lose my faith, Edilio: I killed it. I held it up to the light and I stared right at it and for the first time I didn’t hide behind something I’d read somewhere, or something I’d heard. I didn’t worry about what anyone would think. I didn’t worry about looking like a fool. I was all alone and I had no one to be right to. Except me. So I just looked. And when I looked…’ She made a gesture with her fingers, like things blowing away, scattering in the wind. ‘There was nothing there.’ Edilio looked very sad.”
Good sign: Grant is endlessly creative when it comes to new left-field developments that change the face of his unpredictable world, and he’s at his strongest when he’s finding new ways to torture his characters, both physically and emotionally. For instance, a sadistic psychotic named Penny, who has the power to make other people see and feel whatever she likes, provides some of the most horrifying sequences in Fear. Given a criminal to punish, she has him chewing on his own veins within a moment, and tearing out his own eyes by the end of the sequence. There’s a reason Stephen King has praised the series: It mirrors his work in its attention to unsettlingly grotesque detail.
Young-adult appropriate? When it comes to graphic violence and complicated emotional situations, the Gone series is in some ways astonishingly adult, far past the books’ easy-access reading level. Fear alone contains torture, dismemberment, child molestation, a long-established character casually murdered to keep some animals fed, and seemingly endless variations on humiliation, misery, and terror. In keeping with American mores, Grant is far less graphic about sex; on the few occasions when a couple of the older kids lust after each other or consummate their relationships, Grant dispenses with the act in a flat sentence. And it’s telling and bitterly funny that while Grant can describe in detail how Penny makes another character relive a horrific experience of being eaten alive from the inside by giant mutant insects, he can’t use the word “fuck.” When someone does get angry enough to swear, Grant renders it like this: “Penny said two words, the second of which was ‘you.’”
All that aside, Fear and the Gone series in general is well-designed for teenagers, in that deals with the fantasy of an adult-free world, flatly dismisses it, and plunges its teenage characters into a morass of hard choices and moral issues that just happen to come with cool superpowers. Fear’s most poignant sequence comes when Sam and the others have a chance to see what their parents would make of what they’ve become since the dome went up, and they realize exactly how morally compromised they’ve become.
Old-adult appropriate? Adults may read the Gone series as less morally complicated and more a simple adventure/horror story full of giant marauding bugs, winged snakes, talking coyotes, and other bizarre elements. The books are a big, colorful fantasy, with plenty of sudden twists and turns, and an admirably broad and complicated cast. They’re highly enjoyable on a simple plot level.
Could use less: One-sentence paragraphs and five-word sentences.
Could use more: Sense of what’s going on with the hundreds of non-protagonist kids trapped within the dome, who increasingly only come into the narrative when Grant needs a horde of potential victims for pathos, or a faceless mob to push the plot in one direction or another.
For fans of: Heroes, The 4400, the Wild Cards books, and other series about the social fallout of ordinary people developing superpowers. Also, Lord Of The Flies.