‘The 5th Wave’ by Rick Yancey: It Puts the “Tense” in “Intense”
The word “intense” may be overused in the English language, at least in recent years. For instance, if you’re describing a round of Yahtzee or a Katy Perry music video, “intense” is probably overselling it a bit. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in our culture, but if there was ever a book that adequately encapsulated the meaning of the word “intense,” it’s Rick Yancey’s new young adult novel, The 5th Wave. Much like the extraterrestrial invaders in this post-apocalyptic thriller, The 5th Wave will psychologically batter you until you inevitably succumb to it, letting go of everything you thought you knew, and relinquishing any hope of fully understanding the madness and horrors of Yancey’s alien Armageddon. The 5th Wave is an unflinching portrait of war, encompassing both the worst and the best of humanity. At times it feels like a Holocaust allegory, but then it punches you in the gut with its raw portrayal of child soldiers. The resonant themes make it a great book to consider teaching in high school English classes, but don’t be fooled by the rich literary themes: The 5th Wave is as addictive as it is thought provoking.
The post-apocalyptic setting of The 5th Wave might look familiar at first: vast wilderness, abandoned highways, the barren skeleton of a civilization. Although Yancey’s world and story are wholly their own, there are some recognizable elements and themes from pop culture staples like The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games. What distinguishes this world (or end thereof) from other post-apocalyptic tales is the root cause—extraterrestrial invasion. That being said, the real villains in The 5th Wave might not be the aliens that have taken over the planet, but the humans fighting (somewhat futilely) for survival. Sixteen-year-old Cassie is one of them, struggling to stay alive long enough to reunite with her younger brother. Part of the story is told from her perspective, with a voice that leans towards the cynical end of the spectrum (understandably). The other main character is a boy Cassie’s age who finds salvation in the child army led by a mysterious and morally ambiguous commander. His and Cassie’s paths inevitably cross, but the question is, when they do, will either of them have any humanity left to spare?
I would liken the experience of reading this book to walking on razor-thin ice, knowing that any second it might break, plunging you into icy darkness. Or, less dramatically, it’s like having a staring contest with the book and losing every chapter. The 5th Wave feels heavy, like the pages themselves are weighed down by the words of the story. But the writing style and the endearingly sarcastic heroine—defiant in the face of absolute despair—make it compulsively readable despite the horrors that are depicted, such as mindless killing and the degradation of humanity that accompanies the destruction of civilization.
This book shocked me in all the right ways. Just when I got comfortable, just when I thought I had a handle on where the story was going, it would take a completely unexpected turn. When I thought it was going to zig, it zagged. When I thought all hope was lost, some small miracle would occur. Eventually I learned to stop thinking I could anticipate what was going to happen, and, like Cassie, I stopped trusting anything or anyone. The 5th Wave oscillates between hope and despair, leaving you perpetually unsure which to believe in. This book will make your stomach churn, your hair stick up, your pulse race, and your head swim. It will leave you desolate and hopeful at the same time, but more than anything, it will make you contemplate what it means to be human.