Warning: Spoilers for the whole of Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave follow.
Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is perhaps the young adult novel of the season. It’s been accompanied by a massive promotional push, with what seems like every Barnes & Noble in the world pushing it as the inevitable successor to Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games. And unlike 2012’s event YA book—John Green’s justly acclaimed The Fault In Our Stars—The 5th Wave has a premise that promises at least two more books to come: There are aliens, and there is a girl, and Earth has been invaded. What next?
Truth be told, there’s something almost calculated about The 5th Wave, even when it’s at its best. Yancey is a good writer and a fantastic plotter, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d been kicking around this idea in his head for many years. But with its post-apocalyptic setting, competing love interests, and teenage girl protagonist—the very intelligent, deeply sullen Cassie (though sullenness is forgivable in a girl whose family has been torn apart)—The 5th Wave sometimes feels as if Yancey constructed an alien invasion (instead of a really strange reality-TV/Iraq War allegory) around The Hunger Games’ bare bones. Like Katniss Everdeen, Cassie has had to teach herself to survive in an unforgiving landscape. Like Katniss, she narrates the book in a limited first-person perspective. And like Katniss, she has her fair share of blind spots that become evident to readers long before they become evident to Cassie.
Truth be told, I found The 5th Wave deeply annoying for roughly two-thirds of its page count. I liked the early sections, when Cassie explains how the aliens decimated Earth’s population without setting foot on the planet. They knock out our power, then destroy the coasts with controlled tsunamis before unleashing a plague that kills 97 percent of everyone left. Only then do the aliens begin to show their hands. This is not a force humanity can easily compete with, appropriate for a species that crossed such great distances to find a new home. But after that opening section, the book settles into a two-pronged storyline. Cassie recovers from a potentially fatal injury with the help of a boy named Evan at his strangely pristine rural Ohio farm. Meanwhile at a nearby military base, Cassie’s old crush, Ben, is trained in alien destruction. Along the way, Ben’s joined by Cassie’s younger brother, Sammy. Here, Yancey flirts with having the whole book fall apart.
The problem is this: It’s immediately obvious that Evan is one of the aliens who appear to be human, while it’s also obvious that the military men training Ben are similarly alien emissaries. They are training humanity’s teenagers and children to wipe out other parts of the population and further isolate humans—whose strength, the aliens have determined, arises best when they’re allowed to gather and hatch plans—from one another. But because the book is told from Cassie’s and Ben’s points of view—with more emphasis on Cassie, who’s more easily blinded by her own anger and prejudices—the characters seem to miss clues about their captors’ true motives that readers will pick up on as soon as Evan and the military personnel show up in the book’s narrative. It’s generally good to let readers piece together things like this on their own. It’s enthralling to get just enough ahead of characters to be excited about what’s coming next. But Yancey seems to deliberately let readers get so far ahead of Cassie and Ben that the rest of the book threatens to become a slog.
Fortunately, Cassie and Ben are pleasant enough company to spend time inside their heads. (Well, Cassie gets close to being too stereotypical in some sections, losing some of her prickly shading, particularly in the early going.) This makes the book more or less painless and easy to read, even when it seems like Yancey’s building to a couple of twists that will be the opposite of big reveals for most readers. Also, Yancey does a good enough job messing with readers’ heads in the Ben storyline, especially, that there are a few places where I wondered if I might have misjudged the whole thing—if the military men, who seemed to have a solid enough explanation for their odd behavior, really were using scavenged alien technology to root out traitors who only looked like humans. There’s less ambiguity in the Evan storyline, but it also seems possible that Yancey intends a lot of this, as when Evan cries out, “You saved me!” after having maybe-sex with Cassie—it sure seems like sex, but later Cassie says no boy has ever seen her naked, and, well—and Cassie just doesn’t get what he’s talking about.
Yet it’s possible that if Yancey wanted readers to know what was up from page one, that would just make the reveals even more irritating when they came. And the longer he delays them—again, roughly two-thirds of the book—the more tempting it is to just give up. But in the final third, after Ben finds out he’s working for the aliens and Cassie discovers she’s fallen in love with one in rapid succession, the whole book suddenly snaps into focus. Yeah, there are some thrilling sequences where Cassie infiltrates the military base to find her brother (and, early on, Yancey beautifully establishes all of the alien tech she’ll have to avoid), but The 5th Wave’s surface similarities to The Hunger Games belie the way the book is doing something very different at its core.
The Hunger Games is a political allegory that carries itself with a headlong rush of plot, keeping readers breathlessly turning the pages. When the series took an abrupt shift into emotional character content/misery porn in Mockingjay (still my favorite book of the trilogy, though I seem to be virtually alone in this), many fans were unwilling to go with it, confused by how something so headlong could crash into a wall so quickly. And this is a pretty common occurrence in YA series. Look at how, say, the gloriously detailed world-building and intricate plotting of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series turned into something else entirely in the last half of its final book, or how Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows spends its first half poking at the bond between its main characters before rousing itself for an eventful finale. This is so common in long-running series because it’s part of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey: The protagonist must be tested in every possible way, and at the end, that test must extend to those who are closest to the protagonist. But this requires deeper, more character-driven storytelling, and not every YA series can make that shift. YA fantasy and science fiction are often so driven by plot that the characters are largely unchanging constants who behave in roughly predictable ways within the plot framework.
Yancey does something very clever: He starts where those other series might end. Cassie and Ben have their very sanities and allegiances tested, and he lets readers know almost immediately that the two protagonists have next to no idea of what awaits them. As irritating as it might be to see the signs of what’s really happening around Cassie and Ben—right down to a short section told from the point of view of an alien assassin who’s never identified, but is obviously Evan—without those characters catching on, Yancey is playing a very long game. When he shifts into plot mode with Cassie’s invasion of the alien base in the novel’s last third, he’s built up to and earned the emotional payoffs he’s aiming for, instead of making them perfunctory functions of the plot. When Ben gets nauseous at the thought of all the innocent humans he’s killed at the behest of the aliens he looked up to and trusted, readers gets nauseous, too. And when Cassie realizes whom she’s been sleeping with, the sequence is dizzyingly good, making readers acutely feel her agony over trusting exactly whom she shouldn’t be trusting.
Because of the post-apocalyptic trappings and the opening info-dump about how the aliens destroyed Earth’s population (depicted through flashbacks to how it happened to Cassie), Yancey seems to situate the story in a more plot-based milieu. But at the same time, he’s building something more careful and intricate. He’s giving readers a heroine who’s smart, yes, but not smart enough to have saved her family from what killed both of her parents. (And those flashbacks perfectly depict how Cassie’s parents would have raised a girl like her—hopeful at first, but ultimately deeply wounded and cynical.) He’s purposefully making readers frustrated at Cassie and Ben’s inability to catch on to the true identities of those around them because readers want them to be smart enough to realize what’s happening.
Ultimately, The 5th Wave has something big in common with The Hunger Games beyond the surface: It, too, is an allegory of a world filled with death and apocalyptic tremors. But where The Hunger Games offered a vicious satire of government and media that would condemn young adults to death for entertainment value, The 5th Wave is about something older and more eternal than even that. The surest way to destroy humanity, the aliens surmise, is to drive a wedge between those who would normally be allies. Divide and conquer, as it were. And yet the characters, young enough to still have hope of trusting others, keep reaching out to others, even though they know that might result in their hands being shot off. Yancey so isolates Cassie and Ben within their own points of view that it’s bracing and cathartic when the world forces them to consider other perspectives. Yancey has written a book about the struggle of a makeshift community—be it two people in love or a military platoon—to survive in the face of all who would divide it, a good read in polarized times.
Or, put another way: I never go in for the romances in these YA novels, often finding them superficial at best and ponderous at worst. But when Evan, his secret revealed and his race’s plans laid bare, unmistakably and plainly aligns himself with Cassie before his own people, it does not feel corny and cliché. Instead, it feels like everything Yancey has been building toward, his whole book in one character grabbing for another’s hand. The 5th Wave isn’t the best of the recent wave of YA post-apocalyptic novels (that honor still belongs to Paolo Bacigalupi’s strangely beautiful Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities diptych), but in playing a long game with his plot, Yancey builds characters who stand to lose so much and gain even more. And those are the best sorts of characters to build a series around.