"No, seriously, this is the LAST post-apocalyptic dystopian book I'm going to review."
I say that frequently, don't I? And yet, I keep finding stories that, for me, at least, add to the sub-genre. Few are the novels which move past the end-of-days pyrotechnics and delve into "and then what happens?" Short of Meg Rosoff's HOW I LIVE NOW, most post-apocalyptic novels deal strictly with the apocalypse... and give no clues on how to live within one's boundaries. Is it a coincidence that the writers with the books best detailing the sheer drudgery of living post-apocalypse are writers like Saci Lloyd and Meg Rosoff -- British? I don't think so. That J.E. Anckorn is a British transport to Boston fits my theory as well. It must be something genetic for those whose ancestors survived the Blitz.
Summary: Gracie's a fourteen-year-old from a well-to-do family in the suburbs who has household help and all the tech gadgetry, sci-fi books and movies that she could wish. What she doesn't have is her parent's attention when she wants it - she most often garners her mother's critical attention, accusing her of being anti-social and weird, and her father's chuck-under-her-chin pleasantries. Nowadays, she mostly spends her time with Gilda and checks online forums for news and conjecture about the Space Men. Since the weird sci-fi silver orbs started levitating in the sky, everyone's been scared, the wifi has been wonky and her parents have forbidden her to go outside. It was bad when the orbs - the ships - were just hovering... but when they landed, everything got exponentially worse.
Across town, fifteen-year-old Brandon is worrying about his father, who has been building up a good head of steam since he was suspended from his job at the Post Office, who hasn't taken the pills meant to curb his aggression, and who has allegedly gone "fishing" with his Uncle Bob... and left behind his pole, but taken his guns. While his father has many friends on the police force, it's off-season for deer, and Brandon knows there will be trouble. When his father uses his chainsaw to carve up a big, bleeding buck in the front yard, just to freak out the neighbors, Brandon, as usual, tries to keep the peace and keep his father out of trouble - and gets a black eye for his pains. It's not just the ships hovering in the sky that make things tense at his place. It's the power bill that hasn't been paid, the knee-high front lawn, and the bottomless stash of Dad's bottles. When the ships finally land, things look up - because a man who would've served in the Army except he had to raise his kid -- that type of man is made for challenges such as aliens. But, hiding in a boarded-up house doesn't entirely work, and when they try and take Brandon's father, he holds on -- and on. After all, his father is all he has left, and has given up the dangerous, glamorous life of an Army man that he could have had to raise him. And what is he, without his father?
Five-year-old Jake was sitting in the booster seat in the car when his family was taken. Too little to run and hide, he never had a chance. Found by Gracie and Brandon, in time he begins to believe that he can have a new family. But he has a foot in both worlds now -- and his divided self doesn't just feel like it's breaking.
Three perspectives of holding together and coming apart weave into one story of survival.
Peaks: This is a long book, which in some ways is a positive, as there's time for real plot development, and the ebbs and flows of action and emotional nuance. One of the strongest positives for me is that it explored class difference in America as a secondary plot arc, as well as the whole "aliens emptied the world" thing.
The book's detailed characterization is one of its strengths. It takes a long, long time for Brandon and Gracie to see each other as people -- then as individuals in a class of people, then as allies and friends, and finally as family. Brandon resents Gracie's opportunities and privilege, and what he feels as her sneering at him for not wanting to use books or computers for survival information, and Gracie finds Brandon's reliance on the idea of the Army techniques - which she does not believe he knows - and Army know-how ultimately coming to the rescue - to be juvenile and purposefully blind. Jake, with all of his issues, is both unwitting connection between the two of them, and unwitting wedge. He becomes the prize in a tug of war in multiple directions, and ultimately one of the pivotal characters in the book, despite his age.
Valleys: This is a long book, which for readers who wants a short, sharp exciting ride all the way won't be as satisfying. There are some points, between the high body count, where the narrative drags as the dailiness of bickering and drudging along - without baths or clean clothes, or through a long Maine winter with limited fuel - take their toll, and a reader can easily set the book aside for something else. There is a lack of racial and ethnic or sexual diversity - but the world is mostly emptied and so this is somewhat understandable. Neither the world nor the national governments at all times come out looking entirely positive, which may also be upsetting for some readers.
Conclusion: The 999th post-apocalyptic dystopian I've read in the last few years, but I can honestly say this one has more depth than many, and I look forward to seeing the writer tackle other genres.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, via NetGalley. You can find THIS BOOK by J.E. ANCKORN at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!