The 5th Wave may be the summer’s most buzzed about YA book — but it really does deserve a lot of praise. Rick Yancey’s alien invasion novel plays around with more than a few tropes of the genre, elevating them with dashes of lyrical prose and a plot that just doesn’t stop. Spoilers ahead...
Cassie, short for Cassiopeia, is one of the last humans left on Earth. As she searches for her younger brother, she relates the past six months of destruction that has left only a few hundred thousand humans scattered and powerless against the unseen invaders.
As Cassie and her M16 struggle through what’s left of Ohio, we get chapters from other points of view. Mostly, the Full Metal Jacket-esque training sequences from the eyes of Zombie, one of Cassie’s pre-invasion classmates. These children and teens are humanity’s last defense against humans “infested” by the aliens. A development that opens up questions of what humanity is and isn’t.
It’s here that the book really excels. As the characters fight with competing emotions of despair and hope, as they reconceive who they are versus what they were, the book uncovers psychological truths and emotional moments that feel real. Even when characters do things that are monumentally dumb, their motivations make it clear they could do nothing else.
And Yancey's writing is replete with visual and emotional echoes that seem more apropos of high-shelf literary stuff than a violent, energetic novel with explosions. While the prose edges up to the poetic, it never turns purple. Bombast, like sadism, seems reserved for the worst of the worst. Plus Yancey has a handle on more than just emotions. The story plunges forward, hardly stopping. You never quite trust that the characters are safe and he builds tension in scenes that, since the book is in first person, really have no business being tense. In some ways, the story is merely a rescue mission, but it never feels small or unimportant. Which ties in to some of the larger themes about humanity that Yancey is examining.
The book knows it’s in conversation with larger pop-cultural ideas of alien invasions and the like, but it’s not engaging in an overly jokey way. The humor here is grim and character driven, when humor dares to raise its head at all. This is for the best — since a stray South Park reference makes an otherwise moving moment fall horribly flat. But there is a nice joke for anyone who’s ever taken a screenwriting class when Cassie cuts her hair. Cassie is going to get more than a few comparisons to Katniss Everdeen. But just because two girls are killers, doesn’t mean they’re identical. Cassie is sardonic, rage-filled and grieving, while Katniss is perpetually calculating, triangulating and keeping up appearances. Cassie is less the beaten down girl, discovering her strength than she is an outraged vengeance seeker who had things, but watched as they were ripped away from her.
The book isn’t perfect — there are a couple of strange slips in point of view towards the end. It’s also the first in a series and there’s the threat of a love triangle, both of which feel like automatic points off when it comes to YA books. But at least it is a love triangle where everyone has guns, so hopefully it won’t become too maudlin. And there is more to explore in Yancey’s apocalypse. It seems we’ll get more of the aliens in upcoming books, not to mention humanity’s final stand. With any luck, we’ll also get the point of view of some of the other female characters in the book besides Cassie. They’re interesting, but have yet to get their own POV chapters.
The 5th Wave is the kind of thrilling book you want for a summer read, but with an extra dose of emotional heft.