March 10, 2015 by Jason Seligson
When Rick Yancey’s brand new sci-fi series, The Fifth Wave, was released, I rushed out to my local Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy. Much to my surprise, the book was nowhere to be found—at least not in the New Releases section. It was really confusing, especially since I had heard so much advanced praise for the book; how could there possibly be none in stock? I soon realized what had happened. All of the copies were in one place: by the cash register, stacked in a huge display, complete with a cardboard cutout of the cover’s artwork. I couldn’t believe it: The Fifth Wave had been out less than 24 hours and already had its own shelf.
Clearly, publishers and booksellers alike were taking a gamble with the book, betting on its success. And maybe this was an educated guess on their part. This was the spring of 2013—The Hunger Games series wrapped, and Allegiant scheduled for a release later that fall, there was a notable void for the next big literary trilogy. It was a strange and exciting time, one I feel we are currently experiencing again now, just two years later: Which author, which series, will break out next?
The Fifth Wave had received an enormous amount of acclaim pre-release, including a movie deal; and all signs were pointing to Yancey being the next person to capture lightning in a bottle, to deliver one of the most promising sci-fi trilogies readers had seen in a long time.
Books, like any form of entertainment, can fall prey to overhype. I finished The Fifth Wave feeling underwhelmed. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like the book. I did. For starters, I liked Yancey’s heroine, Cassie Sullivan. Cassie is one of the anchors of the sprawling alien story, and her search for her younger brother after surviving onslaught after onslaught of ruthless, ancient aliens, was effective and occasionally heart wrenching. The book’s action was pretty impressive, and the premise compelling. But I found the writing lacking. Some of the dialogue and characters felt immature; not original enough to make me fully invest.
That said, I believe some of the angst was not only necessary, but intentional. I really enjoyed the way Yancey juxtaposed so many of the characters’ desires pre-invasion (high school crushes, awkward dates), with those they had acquired living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. When the world as everyone knows it changes, people have to adapt and shed their old skins, but that doesn’t mean their old selves completely fade away, either. In this respect, most of Yancey’s teenagers still act their age. Most intriguing of all to me was Ben Parish (a.k.a. Zombie). With Ben, Yancey created a character that cleverly twists the high school jock archetype.
Admittedly, one of my least favorite elements of The Fifth Wave was the romance between Evan and Cassie. No matter his intentions, or how much he cares for Cassie, there’s really no way around the fact that Evan comes off as a real creeper. The book came to a screeching halt when the two meet, because it seems like the attraction is coming out of nowhere. I was fully expecting Ben to become the designated perfect, uninteresting male love interest for Cassie. I’m thankful that he didn’t—that role became Evan. Ben was the object of Cassie’s affection before the “waves” started, and while there could still be a way the two might end up together, it’s nice to have the past knowledge and for Ben to stand as a character on his own.
Yancey is not the first author (nor will he be the last) to focus on this as part of his story. I believe that if we’re seeing any fatigue with dystopian stories, then at least some of that comes from seeing the same tired tropes of love triangles. Often, love triangles in these types of genre sagas feel like a forced ingredient thrown into the mix; they existence not so much for intrigue, but to create ‘ships for people to fight over. When handled well, romance can be as compelling as any alien invasion, hunger game, or Horcrux hunt.
Sometimes, romance or love triangles can be subverted to shock readers (like The Hunger Games does repeatedly, up until the end of Mockingjay), and other times those reversals fall extremely flat. The Maze Runner trilogy spends the first third of its trilogy building up the mysterious Teresa to be the main love interest for Thomas. Teresa is intimately linked to Thomas, and the memories he has lost. Even when Teresa begins to make morally ambiguous decisions in the follow-up novel The Scorch Trials, the reader still believes in the possibility of a happy ending for her and Thomas. But for some reason, author James Dashner chose to introduce a new character rather late in the game, a girl named Brenda. (Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read The Death Cure, skip ahead). It’s Brenda who winds up with Thomas after Teresa’s noble but confusing sacrifice in a climactic scene down in the maze. Ultimately, while romance is never the main draw for a reader like me, I also want to believe in all aspects of a story—romances that feel conjured instead of earned ring false.
As of now, The Fifth Wave is an unfinished trilogy—only two of its three books have been released. Which segues nicely into Book # 2: I enjoyed The Infinite Sea, the second book in Yancey’s trilogy, a great deal more than The Fifth Wave. It’s strange to love a sequel more than the original, right? How often does that happen?
I really enjoyed that this second novel thrusted certain characters we knew so little about, like Ringer and Poundcake, directly into the spotlight. It was a bold move to spend so little time with Cassie, Yancey’s heroine. However, I think it was an essential move if we’re to care about the stakes for the third, and as of yet, untitled final book in this trilogy.
Some people may be disappointed in The Infinite Sea’s slower pace, but not me. This sequel may not have had as many fights or explosions as its predecessor (which is not to say that it didn’t have some thrilling scenes), but I don’t view that as a bad thing. Sometimes, you trade action for character development, and that is exactly how The Infinite Sea roped me in. I didn’t find a lot of the characters in The Fifth Wave anything special; but this book changed my mind, and now, I’m sincerely looking forward to the way this series will close out. In a way, The Infinite Sea did the best possible thing a sequel can do: it changed my mind.