Category: Dystopian

The Handmaid’s Tale

Cover image for The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwoodby Margaret Atwood

ISBN 0-449-21260-2

“I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, my eyes closed, and the name floats behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.”

Offred had a real name, once. Not this bastard name that combines a possessive piece of grammar with the name of the man to whom she currently belongs. In the Republic of Gilead, formerly part of the United States, she has been relegated to the taxing role of Handmaid, at once revered and entrapped by the fact that she possesses a rare set of working ovaries in an age of reproductive decline. Her long and tedious days are broken up only by a walk to the shops, since most forms of entertainment, and especially reading, are now forbidden to women. Most of her nights are spent either trying not to remember or trying not to forget her life before, when she had a husband, and a daughter, a job and her own bank account. Now, once a month, she must lie with the Commander, under the eyes of his dour wife, Serena Joy, and hope that he makes her pregnant before her time runs out.

The Handmaid’s Tale opens on a simple scene that is at once familiar and dystopian. Women sleep in rows of cots in what is recognizably a high school gymnasium with a wooden floor and painted with lines for various sports. But something is also obviously terribly wrong; guards patrol the aisles, and the women are forbidden from speaking to one another, or exchanging names. The opening scene is a great encapsulation of the subtle genius of The Handmaid’s Tale; there are recognizable elements of our own world in there, gone horribly awry. In Atwood’s own words, “there isn’t anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country, or for which actual supporting documentation is not already available.” Dystopian fiction has risen to new heights in recent years, but Margaret Atwood was already scaling those peaks three decades ago.

A striking feature of the story is the way the women are made complicit in the regime and turned against one another. This is accomplished through stratification, and creating rivalry between the different classes of women. The Aunts, often older, infertile women, have saved themselves from work camps by becoming enforcers of the regime, training the younger women to dutifully accept their new status. Women knowns as Marthas are relegated to the role of household servants for the Commanders, and their Wives. The Wives ostensibly have the highest social standing, but they are resentful of the Handmaids, who are charged with giving their husbands sons where the Wives have failed. Econowives in the lower social classes are simply expected to perform all three functions, if they can. The women are kept wary of one another, largely unable to form valuable alliances due the suspicion created by the fact that anyone could be working for the Eyes. If the characters are a bit distant and unknowable, it is this separation that makes them so.

The events of The Handmaid’s Tale are largely quotidian, occasionally broken up by darker events, like a Salvaging, or a visit to the Wall where traitors’ bodies are displayed. Matters also become more fraught in Offred’s household when her Commander starts ordering her to pay him extra night time visits outside the confines of the Ceremony, and out from under Serena Joy’s watchful eye. But if most of The Handmaid’s Tale is very minute and day-to-day, the epilogue that follows it is anything but. Entitled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood zooms out to the year 2195. This epilogue is styled like a transcript from an academic conference, in which a Professor from the University of Cambridge chronicles the discovery and attempted authentication of the audiotapes that have come to be known as The Handmaid’s Tale.

In addition to providing a more distant perspective, the Historical Notes throw a new light on Atwood’s informal narrative style; she dispenses with quotation marks, ruminates on the storytelling process, and has Offred admit when she has conflated events or summarized a conversation to the best of her recollection. Briefly, Offred even assumes the voice of Moira, an escaped Handmaid whose bravery she envies. Revelations about Offred’s past, and how she lost her rights and became a Handmaid, are released in painful dribs and drabs throughout the text, suspended whenever she cannot bear to talk of it anymore. This fragmentation, which has caused some readers, understandably, to complain that it impeded their ability to sink into the narrative, suddenly makes more stylistic sense in light of this belatedly revealed conceit. The Historical Notes also reveal that the academics have had to edit Offred’s tale into their best guess at its original order, since the tapes on which she recorded her autobiography were not numbered. We have read a story about a woman who has been deprived of the right to read and write, only to discover that she has not written her story at all, but imparted it through the spoken word.

Now thirty years old, The Handmaid’s Tale is most often criticized for failing to come to fruition, which is rather ironic given that Atwood wrote it by using elements of history and current events. However, this simplistic view rather misses the point of speculative fiction, the writing of which does not require a crystal ball, a scrying glass, or other supernatural divination of the future. A dark future merely needs to be recognizable enough to send a chill down your spine. Neither 1984 nor Brave New World have come precisely to pass either, and The Handmaid’s Tale stands alongside these as a classic example of the dystopian genre.


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Station Eleven

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel by Emily St. John Mandel

ISBN 9780385353304

“Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. No one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no one removes fallen trees from electrical lines. Jeevan was standing by the window when the lights went out.” 

At a production of King Lear in Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, paparazzo-turned-paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor and film star Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu that only days before seemed like a distant European epidemic. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that trek between the far-flung settlements the post-flu world playing music and performing Shakespeare. When the Symphony arrives back in St. Deborah-by-the-Water after a two year absence, eagerly anticipating a reunion with two members of their group left behind there, they find the settlement irrevocably altered. A Prophet has taken over the town, driving many residents away, and bringing the rest under his sway. When the Prophet demands one of the Symphony’s young women to be his next wife, the Conductor and her people flee south into unknown territory. Fearing pursuit by the Prophet and his ilk, they make for the only southern settlement they have heard of, the almost-mythical Museum of Civilization, supposedly located in what was once the Severn City Airport.

Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines, beginning with Jeevan’s take on the night of Arthur Leander’s death, and the early hours of the epidemic. Thanks to an early warning from a friend who works at a local hospital, Jeevan is able to stock up on supplies and hole up in his brother Frank’s apartment as the fast-moving virus sweeps first the city, and then the continent. From there we go back in time to track the rise of Arthur Leander from small-town British Columbia boy to famed Hollywood actor, through three marriages and divorces, and the birth of his only child. Though Arthur dies in the last days of the old world, he is intimately connected to the primary players in what comes after. The non-linear timeline and complex array of characters will undoubtedly be off-putting for some, but for fans of this type of story-telling, Emily St. John Mandel has handled it masterfully. We end where we began, back on the final night of King Lear as the Georgia Flu is taking hold in Toronto. But this time we are inside Arthur Leander’s head as he gives his final performance, instead of seeing the events through Jeevan’s eyes.

Mandel does not linger on the terrible first days of the pandemic when survivors were fleeing the cities in search of somewhere safe, only to become the greatest danger to one another. In fact, Kirsten, our primary point-of-view character in the post-pandemic world, doesn’t even remember the first year she spent on the road with her brother, though she knows that it was a terrible time. Though there is violence and horror enough to make the apocalypse feel real, but it is done subtly, such as with the haunting presence of a sealed-up and quarantined airplane, leaving the survivors, and the reader, to imagine the horrors that must have transpired during the last hours within. For the most part, however, the focus is on what comes after, and how that reflects on what once was. The story takes place on a cusp, fifteen years after the pandemic, when those who are just coming into adulthood were either born after the Georgia Flu, or were so young when it happened that they have no memory of the world before, and know it only through the tales of the older survivors.

Pop culture remnants form an important touchstone for those who do remember the pre-apocalypse world. In her backpack, Kirsten carries two copies of Station Eleven, a comic book that tells the story of a damaged space station filled with human exiles from an alien-occupied Earth. A tattoo on her arm reads “survival is insufficient,” a Star Trek quote from a show she barely remembers, but which was a favourite of her best friend and fellow Symphony member, August. When they loot abandoned buildings in search of useful items, Kirsten likes to hunt for celebrity gossip magazines featuring Arthur Leander, while August longingly peruses old copies of TV Guide. All this sits in delicate juxtaposition to that initial production of King Lear, which is never far from the main thread of the story, and the many Shakespearean performances the Symphony has given since. Thus the Symphony interrogates the place of art in human history, and what role it can play after the civilization that gave birth to it has largely fallen, while the existence of the Prophet and his doomsday philosophy explore the extremes of how people might cope with understanding their survival when so many others perished. Station Eleven sits alongside other literary takes on the apocalypse, from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to Chang-rae Lee’s  On Such a Full Sea, but it wins me over by effortlessly balancing comic books and Star Trek right alongside Shakespeare.


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5 to 1

Cover image for 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger by Holly Bodger

ISBN 978-0-385-39153-5

“Instead of fixing things/ of making changes/ of making improvements/ all they’ve done/ has been to break them/ in reverse.”

After decades of ultrasounds and selective abortions thanks to an ill-advised One Child Policy, India has five boys for every girl, turning women into a valuable commodity. The women of the city of Koyanagar fight back, creating an independent city-state walled off from the rest of the country, where every boy will have a fair chance to win a wife through a series of challenges called the Test. Twelve years later, Sudasa, who barely remembers life before Koyanagar declared independence, turns seventeen and must choose a husband through the Test even though she doesn’t really want to get married. Five boys are competing for her hand, but the only one who intrigues Sudasa is Contestant Five, who seems to be walking the fine line between deliberately failing the Test and being conscripted into the army as punishment for failing to participate.

Sudasa doesn’t start out as naïve as some dystopian heroines. She doesn’t have to become disillusioned with the system; she can already see some of its flaws, though she tends to think about it from her perspective rather than that of the boys. However, when her second cousin shows up as Contestant One in her Test, she receives final confirmation that the system corrupt as well as flawed, and this pushes her over the edge into rebellion. Her grandmother, Nani, is one of the matriarchs of Koyanagar, and Sudasa suspects she has rigged her tests to force her to marry someone she despises, a second cousin who is a somewhat villainous caricature of sexism and entitlement. Sudasa’s chapters are relayed in verse, heavily relying line breaks, punctuation, and formatting to underscore her feelings.

Kiran, known to Sudasa only as Contestant Five, conveys his point of view in prose. He comes from a poor village by the sea, and finds himself torn between warring instincts. He never expected to win, and in fact plans to do all he can to lose short of refusing to participate, which would result in an immediate punishment. But he is repulsed by Contestant One’s sexism, bullying, and sense of entitlement, and cannot help but want to put him in his place. He struggles with the fact that he could easily beat Contestant One, but only if he is willing to give up his own plans to escape Koyanagar and find out what happened to his mother, who left the city before the gates closed twelve years ago.

5 to 1 takes place over the course of the three days of Sudasa’s Test, and includes some flashbacks to her childhood, as well as reflections from Kiran’s past.  This narrow scope allows the story to work; the immediate action and high stakes distract from the somewhat flimsy world-building, and the perishable nature of the premise. Ultimately, 5 to1 is a parable about why feminism has to mean equality of the sexes, not role reversal, and the world-building takes second place to setting up a situation that allows Bodger to explore this idea. With an open-ended conclusion, there is room for a sequel, but a greater focus on developing the world would be necessary.


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The Bees

Cover image for The Bees by Laline Paullby Laline Paull

ISBN 978-0-06-233117-5

“The priestesses surrounded her and flexed their abdomens high. Flora saw the tips of their bodies draw in to a hard point, and as they sung the Holy Chord together, their delicate barbed daggers slid out. The chamber filled with the scent of venom, then the priestesses stung the Clover from all sides. She cried out once—and then the sweet scent of her kin burst bright upon the foul air and was gone.”

Flora 717 is born into Sanitation, the lowest class of worker bees in the Hive in the orchard. But from the day she is hatched, Flora longs for more than her class allows her within the narrow confines of Hive society. Ashamed of her kin, she longs to be a bold forager like Lily 500, flying out into the world to collect pollen and nectar, where her unusual size and strength will be seen as an asset rather than a deformity. By bringing honour to the Hive, she may win the rare privilege of attending the Queen, and basking in her Love. But as her world expands, Flora dares to dream bigger still, a dream that may cost her her life. She longs to defy the greatest edict of all: only the Queen may breed.

Set almost entirely within the confines of a bee hive, and with bees as the primary characters, Laline Paull weaves the strict hierarchy and intricate choreography of the hive into a terrifying dystopian society that threatens to stifle its inhabitants. Flora 717 is born into a perilous season, where rain and cold prevent foraging, and many of the flowers are poisoned by smog or pesticide. Her unusual skill and flexibility win her a reprieve from the automatic death that would normally result from her variance. Though joined to the hive mind, and bound to worship the Queen, Flora’s shifting duties eventually permit her to figure out that something is amiss within the hive, a creeping sickness that the unusual weather cannot explain.

The bee hive as a dystopian society is an intriguing conceit that manages to stand up surprisingly well over more than three hundred pages. There is plenty of drama and tension inherent in the life cycle of a hive, from the perils of foraging, to risk of a wasp invasion, and the looming spectre of winter. The fertility police and the all-knowing Sage priestesses who attend the Queen make for credible villains within the hive, while wasps, spiders, and man-made horrors provide external threats. What is most difficult is striking the right balance between the bee’s perspective and human vocabulary. Word choices such as “lobby” and “door” occasionally jar within the context of the hive, and yet it is sometimes necessary to make clear what is happening.

It is anthropocentric to anthropomorphize bees to be sure, and yet fascinating, as it transforms easily into an allegory for religious hierarchies and strict caste and class systems. Taking their perspective is at once intriguing and horrifying—hive life can be brutal—and yet incites a deep empathy for their threatened existence. As much as it is a commentary on restrictive societies, it is also deeply concerned with the environment.  You might finish feeling moved to plant a flower garden, or take up beekeeping. Paull has successfully transformed the life cycle of the hive into a dramatic narrative that artfully balances the biological conceit with deft storytelling.


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The Invasion of the Tearling (Queen of the Tearling #2)

Cover image for Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansenby Erika Johansen

ISBN 978-0-06-229039-7

“Kelsea Glynn had a temper. She was not proud of this fact. Kelsea hated herself when she was angry, for even with her heart thumping and a thick veil of fury obscuring her vision, she could still see, clearly, the straight path from unchecked anger to self-destruction. Anger clouded judgement, precipitated bad decisions. Anger was the indulgence of a child, not a queen.”

After putting a stop to the shipment of Tear slaves to the neighbouring kingdom Mortmesne, Kelsea Raleigh Glynn is the Queen of a country on the brink of war with a vastly more powerful enemy. Though the Tear sapphires delayed their doom in the confrontation at the Argive Pass, the Mort army is now marching inexorably on New London. As Kelsea undertakes a desperate evacuation of the Tear countryside, she finds herself losing time, slipping into a fugue state where she inhabits the pre-Crossing life of a woman named Lily Mayhew. Kelsea clings to the Tear sapphires, hoping against hope for another miracle, even as the stones seem to be working a terrible change on her body, and perhaps even her mind. Opposed by the Church, and doubted even by her closest friends and allies, Kelsea struggles to figure out the connection between her visions of Lily’s crumbling world, and her own current predicament.

The Invasion of the Tearling is told from the perspective of several characters, both major and minor, including an officer in the Tear army, and a jailor in the Keep, as well as the Red Queen of Mortmesne, Kelsea, and finally, Lily Mayhew, the pre-Crossing woman with whom Kelsea shares a mysterious connection. In The Queen of the Tearling, Erika Johansen kept the history of the founding of Tear close, leading to some confusion about whether it was set in a fantasy world, or our own world after some devastating apocalypse. With the daring and perhaps divisive narrative decision to include Lily’s perspective, Johansen begins to provide some overdue answers about the Crossing that preceded the founding of William Tear’s utopia.

The Invasion of the Tearling is a compulsive read, and Johansen’s pacing is tantalizing, due in large part to the shifting perspectives, which cut in and out at key junctures. I hated being torn away from the answers finally being provided in Lily’s point-of-view, and was burning with curiosity about what she would reveal next, but by the time we returned to her, I had become thoroughly reinvested in Kelsea’s problems and perspectives. Truly, Johansen manages the shifting narration with a deft hand, even though her timing is maddening. But though the suspense kept me turning the pages, what I found there was not always satisfying or fully explained.

Steady and decisive in The Queen of the Tearling, Kelsea becomes an inconsistent and unpredictable character in The Invasion of the Tearling, buffeted by the supernatural and unexplained forces of the dark thing and the Tear sapphires, as well as the impossible predicaments and responsibilities of her crown. Though she remains focused on doing the right thing by evacuating her people from the path of the Mort army, she seems to have lost her moral compass in many other respects. With the workings of the Tear sapphires still unexplained, and the extent of the dark thing’s influence unclear, it is hard to say which changes originate where, and to what ultimate effect. It was fascinating to watch Kelsea slowly amass power and respect in The Queen of the Tearling, but as her power continues to grow in unexplained ways, that hard-earned respect quickly gives way to fear. Johansen will have a lot of work to do to fully justify these changes and rehabilitate her protagonist in the final volume, and much rests on how she brings it all together. Certainly, the plot’s heavy reliance on a piece of unexplained magic or technology—the Tear sapphires—cannot continue.


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The Word Exchange

Cover image for The Word Exchange by Alena Graedonby Alena Graedon

ISBN 978-0-385-537665-0

“It may seem to some readers that the dystopian future we’re imaging is exaggerated or, at the very least, a long way off. We can only hope, for all our sakes, that they’re right. Because if not, then these and all words may very well soon lose their meanings. And then we’ll all be lost.”

Anana Johnson works with her father Doug at the North American Dictionary of the English Language, one of the last surviving print dictionaries in the world. In the near future, most dictionaries have been bought up by Synchronic Inc. and incorporated into the Word Exchange, a cloud-based service that allows users to download definitions to their Meme devices on demand for only two cents each. Thanks to Doug’s clever stewardship, the NADEL has managed to survive as a non-profit organization, but with their last round of grant funding coming to an end, it seems likely that the Third Edition will be the final print version of the dictionary before it becomes online only as well. Doug himself is fiercely anti-technology, and is particularly opposed to Synchronic’s pervasive Meme device, which anticipates and sometimes even directs the user’s wants and needs. Ana has always humoured her father’s paranoia, while continuing to use the Meme herself, but when her father disappears on the eve of the publication of his life’s work, his entry simultaneously disappears from the online version of the NADEL, giving weight to his digital anxieties. Assisted by her NADEL colleague, Bart, Ana goes in search of her father, and falls headlong into a world of corporate conspiracies while all around her, people are forgetting common words, and suddenly spouting gibberish as “word flu” begins to spread.

The Word Exchange combines Ana’s ex post facto reflections on the origins of the epidemic with entries from the journal Bart kept during the outbreak. Ana’s passages are more explanatory, while Bart’s musings tend towards the philosophical. Nonsense words begin slipping into their writing as the epidemic continues, and I occasionally spent too much time trying to figure out what word had been replaced, and looking for patterns in the missing words. Similarly distracting are Ana’s frequent footnotes, which she assures us are only there because writing in a discursive style is form of word flu rehabilitation. Ana’s narration stays mostly in the moment, but there is some heavy-handed foreshadowing such as “I later found out…” and “only later would I learn…” that tends to interrupt the flow of the storytelling.

More literary than science fiction, Alena Graedon weaves in elements of philosophy, linguistics, and etymology, but spends little time on world-building. Ana’s world is very familiar and similar to our own, with Memes representing the major difference. The exact date the book takes place is a bit unclear, but characters reference some events that happened in Taiwan in 2016 as being a few years ago. This ambiguity means events are just distant enough to seem surreal, and yet close enough to be frighteningly familiar.

The Word Exchange is a very cerebral science fiction, and it is no surprise that there is a long bibliography and years of research behind this novel ranging from etymology to lexicography to philosophy. It is a very self-conscious novel by an author who has thought long and deep about both the written and spoken word, and the role it plays in our lives in conjunction with technology. Undoubtedly, some readers will find it a little too self-reflexive. But for all that reflection, it doesn’t feel didactic or prescriptive about the role technology should play in our lives; it is merely meditative, and that gives it an accessibility that an anti-technology screed would lack. Three starred reviews—from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly—show that the book is likely to be popular among literary types, but is perhaps less likely to appeal to those looking for a more typical sci-fi adventure.


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Cover image for Atlantia by Ally Condieby Ally Condie

ISBN 978-0-525-42644-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“After losing my mother and my sister, I didn’t think I had anything left to lose, but I do. You always have something left to lose. Until, of course, you die.”

In the beginning, there was the Divide, when the earth and air Above became so polluted that humankind retreated Below the sea, founding the underwater city of Atlantia. The citizens of Atlantia are blessed with health, longevity, and prosperity, while those who live Above have short lives of sickness and labour, a necessary sacrifice to preserve the human race Below that will be rewarded in the afterlife. Despite the pollution, Rio has always dreamed of going Above, hopeful that there she will be able to reveal the secret she has been forced to keep close her entire life in Atlantia. But when her mother, Oceana, the Minister of Atlantia’s temple dies in mysterious circumstances, Rio’s twin sister, Bay, elicits a promise that Rio will not choose the Above on her sixteenth birthday. Then Bay betrays her, and chooses the Above herself, leaving Rio alone with her questions about her mother’s death, and the Divide. The only person she can turn to is her mother’s estranged sister, the siren Maire, reputed by many to be a sea witch.

Ally Condie, author of the popular Matched trilogy, revisits the dystopian genre with Atlantia, an undersea adventure that focuses not on mermaids, but sirens. Rather than the creatures of mythology, Condie’s sirens are human-born miracles, an unexplained result of the migration below the waves. Sirens are born with supernatural voices, and can compel others to do their will. This awesome power is held in check by the Council, which takes sirens from their parents as soon as they are discovered and raises them to be obedient servants of the state. However, the citizens of Atlantia accept their religion’s characterization of sirens as miracles, and seem unperturbed by the fact the Council, largely made up of people immune or at least resistant to the sirens, can use their power to control and subdue the populace.

One of the best features of Atlantia is that it is more about sisterhood than romance, though both Bay and Rio have a love interest. The focus on the relationships between Rio and Bay, and Maire and Oceana is also fortunate, given that the chemistry between Rio and True is relatively flat, and Fen, Bay’s romantic interest, has very little page time. Both sets of sisters have complicated relationships, defined as much by their differences as their similarities. When Bay chooses to go Above without explanation, Rio is forced to question how well she really knew her sister, and question the estrangement between Maire and Oceana. Rio is strong character in her own right, curious and independent, but it is the mysterious Maire, with her ambiguous intentions, who emerges as the most interesting figure in the story. Powerful and feared, where her sister was a beloved figurehead, Maire unapologetically owns her outsider status, and protects her own self-interest while simultaneously fulfilling her siren’s duty as a public servant.

Atlantia is a surprisingly slow-paced story, despite, or perhaps because of, the amount of information packed into its pages. As a rare standalone dystopian in a sea of trilogies, Condie is struggling to cover the same amount of ground in a single volume. She must fit in all of the world-building, and the various plot twists and turns that accompany Rio’s investigation into her mother’s death, and Bay’s decision to go Above. Condie does a lot of imaginative world-building, particularly with the religion invented to justify the Divide, and the revelations pertaining to it are deeply layered, with the final twist coming mere pages before the book concludes. The ending strikes a tough balance, tying up loose threads, while remaining open ended. Condie has emphatically stated that Atlantia is a standalone, but it would be all too easy to tack on a sequel.


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The Infinite Sea (The 5th Wave #2)

Cover image for The Infinite Sea by Rick Yanceyby Rick Yancey

ISBN 978-0-399-16242-8

Warning: Given how obfuscated the jacket copy plot description is, some purists might consider my plot summary below to be spoilery. I have done my best to give you some idea of what actually happens in the book without giving away the store, but proceed at your own risk.

“Pining for things we lost is the same as hoping for things that can never be. Both roads dead-end in despair.”

Injured and afraid, the escapees from Camp Haven hole up in an abandoned, rat-infested hotel, trying to figure out what their next move should be after the revelations of The 5th Wave. Cassie is anxiously waiting for Evan to catch up with them, while slowly losing hope that he survived the blast that destroyed Camp Haven. In search of a better long-term hiding place, Ringer sets out to scout a potential winter shelter, but her attachment to Teacup compromises the mission, placing them both back in Vosch’s clutches. Meanwhile, the hotel hide-out becomes a death trap as a Silencer from Evan’s past begins targeting the small band of survivors.

Rick Yancey takes a gamble and falls short with the narrative structure of The Infinite Sea. The scene and POV shift constantly throughout the first half of the novel, roving among the various survivors, before finally settling with Ringer in the second half of the book. Misinformation is Yancey’s stock-in-trade, but he gets a bit carried away in The Infinite Sea, proving there can be such a thing as too many plot twists and cliff-hangers as he struggles to sustain suspense during the goings-on at the hotel. This fractured and frustrating opening is the price of admission for the second half, and the revelation that changes everything. Make no mistake, it’s a doozy, but the maneuvering it takes Yancey to get there is exhausting.

Yancey’s title is a reference to a speech made by Shakespeare’s Juliet, but star-crossed lovers are hardly the focus of The Infinite Sea.  Even more so than in The 5th Wave, romance takes a back-seat as the plot moves to focus on Ringer, locked in a battle of wills and wits with Commander Vosch. Ringer always had a lot of questions about Cassie’s relationship with Evan, and Evan’s revelations about the Others, but Vosch puts Teacup’s life on the line as he challenges Ringer to reconcile the contradictions in what she thinks she knows. After all, the Others are supposed to be pure consciousness, but “a virtual existence doesn’t require a physical planet.”

Plot structure aside, The Infinite Sea still has much of what recommended The 5th Wave, which was gritty and inventive in its horrors. The Others’ latest tool of terror combines psychological and military warfare by turning the youngest human survivors in into IEDs, preying on the human instinct to preserve the children. And in the midst of all the action and horror, Yancey still comes out with strikingly observant bits of prose, and evocative images and motifs. Whereas in the The 5th Wave he used cockroaches and bodies as battlefields, in The Infinite Sea he uses rats and a silver thread that connects the characters to similar affect. Chess has been a consistent motif in both books, but it becomes especially important here as Vosch toys with Ringer, challenging her to a game with no rules. Yancey’s writing remains stylistically strong, and the last act offers hope for the next installment to be as good as the first one was.