***Note: This review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Although this is really just another apocalyptic survival story with no new themes that I can glean (so far in Book I), the relationship between Amy and Baby is well-rendered, and there's a dreaminess to the hospital scenes that makes the narrative form a little braver than usual.
I've seen a lot of comparisons with Rick Yancey's The 5th Wave
on this one, but to me the two books are quite different. Perhaps readers drew the connection because they came out in the same season and both borrow imagery from many different pop cultural and sci-fi sources. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if post-apocalypse alien horror is your favorite cup of tea), as a result of this heavy borrowing, they both seem somewhat derivative. (Entertaining, but derivative.) In fact, the real literary comparison should be made with Ashes
, by Ilsa J. Bick, because In the After
each involve an apocalyptic survival story where the first half is exclusively "learning how to stay alive while forming a surrogate family with other survivors" (including an adopted-younger-sister side-kick) and the second half is life in--and escape from--an oppressive, cult-like "utopia" that formed after the invasion. (In the After
features an insulated town based on science and eugenics while Ashes
has the sect-like, sexist town called Rule.) In a real apocalypse, were we to have one, it would surprise me if the last remnants of society decided that "women having babies" and "building the race back up" are the most important mandates when resources are scarce and the alien threat is still imminent, so it's interesting that both Lunetta's and Bick's minds went in that direction. In the case of In the After
, I suppose there's a possibility we'll see that Dr. Reynolds arranged the entire apocalypse in order to set up his Master Race, which would explain the plot's focus on forced/arranged procreation. But I'm getting ahead of myself...and ahead of the sequel.
Summary so that I don't forget. Amy survives the sudden destruction of at least the U.S. in what appears to be an alien invasion. In this case the aliens are zombie-like: they have voracious appetites for human flesh (they tear their human prey apart while he/she is alive, somewhat like lions), and in being otherwise devoid of intellect and emotions. In appearance, I imagined them to be a bit like DC Comics's Swamp Thing, but with glowing yellow eyes and sharp teeth.
Immediately you wonder what the real story is, since these low-intel creatures couldn't possible pilot the supposed "ship" that "landed" in Central Park (at least I think that's where the structure was). The quotation marks are purposeful here: we eventually learn that the "ship" is just a coincidental art installation, and it became convenient for the government to encourage the public misinformation that the Floraes are aliens. Amy's father is an ecology-minded guy who has installed solar panels on the house that power everything in their home (sorry, this is impossible in Chicago for much of the year) and a garden on the roof, and her mother has a sensitive government research job that has caused her to install an electrified fence and store a hand gun in her closet. These things contribute immensely to Amy's survival. In fact, her home is the only one with flushing toilets, running water, and a dishwasher. (Wouldn't the municipal water supply have been cut off? They don't say she has a well. And pumps are noisy, even if solar power is not. She lives in Lincoln Park in Chicago, not on a farm.) Anyway, Amy is resourceful enough to figure out that the "aliens" can't see well in the dark, and have exceptional hearing, so that being quiet and still and going out only at night are actually tactics that can save you. Amy rescues a toddler from the grocery store who has a preternatural ability to remain silent, even in stressful situations, and has a mysterious tattoo-like mark on the back of her neck. I loved the fact that the toddler's name became Baby, and I loved the relationship that developed between them. It was hands down the best part of the book--the thing that sets it apart from most other "consumable" books.
Amy slowly teaches herself and Baby her own version of sign language, so that they can live silently and safely. (It's half American sign language and half invented. For instance Amy makes up the sign for "fan," a sentimental slang word for "fantastic" that Amy originally developed with her old [now almost certainly deceased] best friend.) At the age of 6, when the main action takes place, Baby is already skilled and stealthy enough to be able to go on supply runs by herself. They take in another teenage girl, Amber, who has no survival skills whatsoever, and this is where things unravel. Amber's brother is part of a gang that wants to take what Amy and Baby have, and eventually they chase Amy and Baby out. The pair slums it from house to house until they're attacked by Florae (the scientific name for the monsters), and rescued by Kay Oh and the Guardians (new music group, yo!), who take them to New Hope. The director of New Hope turns out to be none other than Amy's scientist mom, who thought Amy was dead, and who has given Amy a new little brother. (My money is on Dr. Reynolds being the sperm donor, because he thinks they'd have a superior child.) Amy decides to secretly train as a Guardian, so that when she graduates from school, she won't be forced to go on the barefoot-and-pregnant track. Her mom's assistant, Richard (Rice), happens to be a brilliant, handsome scientist exactly her age, and he quickly becomes attentive to her, if not a touch possessive. The affection Amy returns to him seems a little odd, given what a team player he is, and how independent and subversive she considers herself to be. (Again, in a comparison with Ashes, Rice is the Chris character.) Maybe Amy will come to her senses in Book II.
Amy gets a little too inquisitive and Dr. Reynolds puts her in the Ward to straighten her out. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In fact, there's precisely a scene from that movie, when Amber gets a lobotomy, which Amy only discovers when she forces her to turn her head to look at her, and sees the shaved head and stitches. Amber's brother, who tried to take over the New Hope compound, has meanwhile been experimented on to death, in an effort to try to find an antidote to the Florae disease--yes, Soylent Green is people! (Or rather, the Green Monsters are people.) Kay and another Guardian (Gareth) bring pills to Amy that counteract the sedative meds that Dr. Reynolds has been giving her, and with their help (and Dr. Samuels's insider help) Amy breaks out of the Ward and flies in a hover-copter to Fort Black. (As she's flying away from the compound, she shouts to Baby that she'll return for her. I presume this is done so far away that no one but Baby, with her supersonic hearing, is alerted.)
I do think it's clever that the way to keep a safe perimeter around any zone is to basically have an invisible auditory fence--a sonic emitter that is extremely unpleasant for the supersonic-hearing Floraes. I like it that Baby's vaccination has given her the Florae power of hearing.
Narrative style. Starting in Part Two of the book, the narration alternates between present tense--where Amy is in the Ward and has lost her memories--and past tense, where she remembers the bits and pieces leading up to her confinement in the Ward. Some readers have complained that the narration is herky jerky, and hard to figure out, but it worked for me: the font is different for each section, and I think it provides an interesting, dreamlike quality to the narration--mimicking the way Amy's own mind is not thinking linearly while she's drugged, but she's gathering memories back slowly. The pace retards too much here, though, and as with all the New Hope sections, the motivation for this insulated society's rigid structure isn't really strong enough, especially considering the underlying violence that's going on behind the scenes and is hidden from the inhabitants. We get hints that Fort Black--the only other haven--is violent and badly run, and we know that living with Floraes on the outside is too dangerous, so even Amy's mother buys the Kool-Aid that New Hope is the sane and orderly alternative. Still, it seems trope-like to have a sadistic leader who takes his power too far. It's a lot like the town in The Walking Dead: the psycho alternative pretending to be a utopia.
Lack of deeper themes. The most interesting themes that are developed in the book have to do with family. Baby becomes something halfway between an adopted child and a sister for Amy. Amy's mother is all maternal ambivalence: she was glad that Amy was alive, but quickly gets back to work (as she did before the apocalypse). Amy's mom sees procreation in New Hope as a necessity, and participates in it, but is also committed to raising Adam (her own test-tube baby) herself. And Amy's mom seems to have given Kay the secret encouragement to break Amy out (by telling her Amy's room number in the Ward). Other than this theme of family, and the theme of emotional adaptability that Amy and Baby show in this new, horrible world--they understand there has been a paradigm shift and they don't waste time longing for a return to the past--there isn't much that's contemplative here. Just a whole lotta fun.
My usual nit-picking:
1. The rules for quietness are a little inconsistent. For instance, it's okay to flush a toilet in the basement, but if Amanda snores down there, it's too loud.
2. Early on, before Baby, Amy kills a man named Jake by detonating a car alarm in her backpack (which he has stolen) using a remote control. Where did Amy get terrorist training?! I mean, this involves several pieces of knowledge and equipment: knowing where to find the alarm in an abandoned car, knowing how to remove it, knowing what triggers it, having a remote control, and knowing how to wire the two so that the trigger is set off by the remote. I think car alarms, like car horns, are probably triggered by a simple mechanical switch that completes the electric circuits, and I can't even begin to figure out how you'd make them receptive to the radio signal from a remote control. (Granted, the idea is cool. But when I asked myself "How would you do that?" I realized it was a pretty sophisticated mechanical engineering concept.)
3. Amy's mom says that rescuers went to the house when Amy was out (and took a photo album). Wouldn't the rescuers come back another time, seeing that someone was still living in the house? Why would Amy's mom presume she was dead if the Guardians reported signs of life in the house, which there certainly were? And how did Amy not notice that the album was gone when she got back?
4. The prose is serviceable, but with some beginner cliches. "I quickly threw myself against the opposite wall, my heart beating out of my chest. Why was the creature there? Breaking into a cold sweat, I realized that this must be where the Florae-sapiens were studied. This was where They were kept. I slowed my breathing back to normal..." (Chapter 17, p. 228)
5. Of what use is the information that the floraes are malleable enough to slither down drains and live in the sewers? Perhaps this will be important in the next book.
6. Did Amy really miscalculate her own birthday? What was the point of including that?