Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: ARCLIGHT by Josin McQuein

The Arclight is the last defense. The Fade can’t get in. Outside the Arclight’s border of high-powered beams is the Dark. And between the Light and the Dark is the Grey, a narrow, barren no-man’s-land. That’s where the rescue team finds Marina, a lone teenage girl with no memory of the horrors she faced or the family she lost. Marina is the only person who has ever survived an encounter with the Fade. She’s the first hope humanity has had in generations, but she could also be the catalyst for their final destruction. Because the Fade will stop at nothing to get her back. Marina knows it. Tobin, who’s determined to take his revenge on the Fade, knows it. Anne-Marie, who just wishes it were all over, knows it.

When one of the Fade infiltrates the Arclight and Marina recognizes it, she will begin to unlock secrets she didn’t even know she had. Who will Marina become? Who can she never be again?
I've read some good books this year. No, I've read some great books this year. I've read happy books and sad books and inventive books. I even read a book that inspired an entire blog tour. But what I've missed so far this year is a book that latches onto my brain stem and doesn't let go. I've missed reading a book that makes me stay up until ridiculously late and then spend the day after telling everyone I can that they MUST read this cool new book.

I haven't had one of those this year, and it's made me sad. But this book. Oh man, THIS BOOK. This book has finally broken my streak for 2013. Holy guacamole.

We know from the start that Ms. McQuein has no interest in writing a typical post-apocalyptic novel. Arclight opens in a what appears to be a typical classroom amidst a Career Day presentation from a local doctor. There's a teacher, a chalkboard, students, and desks. It was such an ordinary scene that I paused for a moment, confused. The only things that indicate otherwise are that 1) our narrator, Marina, is convinced that everyone in class hates her, 2) the class's teacher is dressed in fatigues, 3) Marina casually mentions unfamiliar concepts such as "Arclight."

I loved this opening, what some people might refer to as a soft open. Most writers would give into temptation and plunk us in the middle of an action-packed moment, perhaps with Marina hiding or gasping for air or jumping over logs or something. Instead, we're given - just for a moment - a glimpse at normalcy. And then it's all ripped away as the lights change.
In the weeks since I've been here, I've never seen an alarm go Red-Wall. It always stops on blue caution when the Fade are at the outer perimeter, or purple warning when they come close enough to test our defenses. Before now, the light's always driven them back. Tonight something's changed.

They're inside.
The setting changes from something relatable and serene to something frightening yet all-too-imaginable. The Fade, diseased, monstrous creatures from The Dark who scale walls like spiders and disappear into shadows like chameleons, have infiltrated Arclight, the last known human settlement on Earth. Students cower in corners and scream for their fellows. Gunshots erupt in the hallways as soldiers pour in to defend against the Fade. But the Fade cannot be killed. They do not bleed. They are invincible, halted only by the brightest of lights.

None of this is explained out. Ms. McQuein doesn't have the kids run through a tidy little lesson before the attack to catch the reader up to speed. Rather, she tosses us head-over-heels into the action, motivating us to catch up or be devoured by the Fade.

I loved every minute.

It's through Marina and through what she observes and discusses with those around her that we learn more about her world. The Arclight is a carefully regimented settlement somewhere in the United States, not as far west as the deserts on the West Coast, nor as far north as New York. It sits somewhere in the murky middle, alone in the Dark. The children don't know whether the Dark is the product of the Fade or vice-versa, an they're told very little about their enemy beyond bedtime stories and lurid conjecture. What they do know is that the Fade are deadly with their click-clacking claws and inhuman speed. They can see in total darkness and have uncanny hearing, and it is their goal to hunt down and capture Marina.

What Marina nor any of her classmates can say is why. Found wandering out in the Grey, the hazy ring of land where the Dark and the light from Arclight mingle, she is the only outsider living in Arclight. Her memory is a blank, so she has no idea where she came from or who she was before the troops from Arclight rescued her from the Fade. All that remains from her time in the Grey is a bullet wound in her leg and a pounding headache that requires constant maintenance from the inhaler she keeps around her neck. She also carries with her the hatred of her classmates, many of whom lost parents to the Fade during her rescue attempt and who blame her for the increased attacks.

I loved the mish-mash of familiar and unfamiliar elements. The girl with amnesia trope is not a new one, especially not when combined with the trope of her missing memory being the key to all things. Making the girl a crippled outcast with an inhaler, rather than a gorgeous, athletic outcast, is a new spin that I appreciated. Also, while the setting of a regimented, uniformed society with strict leaders and questionable morals is a very old one, the world itself felt very fresh.

Oftentimes in dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories, the writer falls prey to tunnel vision. The Hunger Games, for instance, focuses exclusively on Panem, with not one word spared for the rest of the world and how they may view the events of the book. While such exclusivity is acceptable and perhaps even necessary for the story needing to be told, I often wondered how, say, Europe felt about their ally across the Pond effectively turning into an outsized hyperbole of North Korea.

However, in Arclight, the tunnel vision employed is really the only way to go. As far as the citizens of Arclight now, they are the only remaining humans on the planet. While unlikely, given what we later learn about the inception of the Fade invasion, there is no way for them to reach whatever remains of the outside world. The deep, impenetrable Dark spreads in every direction and devours a little more of the Grey each day. Though Marina and her classmates sometimes dare to dream about what lie beyond the Dark, if such a thing as beyond the Dark existed, leaving Arclight is not only dangerous but also forbidden. While it is frustrating to read books that ignore the rest of the world and pretend as though there is nothing out there, reading Arclight as it deals with the same issue was not frustrating but rather chilling, for what is a survivor to do if there really is nothing out there?

Nothing but Fade, that is. The Fade can only be described as the terrifying hybrid of the Vashta Nerada, the Nazgul, and the goblins from the Mines of Moria. I can't say much about them, as they're very spoilerific, but I will say that they will make you fear the dark.

Also, the romance Ms. McQuein decides to incorporate into the story is interesting. Marina and Tobin do not share a fast romance. At first, the only emotions shared are hate and fear. Tobin's father died during Marina's rescue, and Tobin makes sure Marina knows she isn't welcome in Arclight. However, they are forced into an unwilling - and then willing- partnership that slowly turns into something more. I love any romance that starts as a friendship as opposed to sudden physical attraction, so I was very pleased with the progression between Marina and Tobin. (It should be noted that there is a love triangle of sorts in Arclight, but one that is of a different flavor than most. Indeed, I found it heartbreaking, as both boys have equally valid claims to Marina's affection and heart, and Marina has ample reason to trust and love each boy.)

I devoured this book in just a handful of days. I stayed up late, went overtime on my lunch breaks (by accident, I promise), and did just about everything I could to squeeze one more minute of reading out of my day. When I am as enveloped by a book as I did by Arclight, I tend to become a little flighty in my reading. I'm like a little kid running pell-mell down the park path. I don't stop to smell flowers. I don't pause and ponder little details. It's full-speed go go GO!

Given the fount of new information and heady twists that come about, especially in the latter half of the novel, and my aforementioned habit to lose myself in a book, I can't say for certainty that every plot point made complete sense. I still don't understand everything that happened, nor can I say that the science involved made complete sense. However, I don't care. I flat-out don't care. In fact, I'm excited that I didn't understand everything during my first reading, as it gives me a reason to buy a finished copy and treat myself to a second, slower reading.

The only aspect that I wish had been given more care is the ending. While satisfactory in some places, it felt too tidy in others. While my anticipated reread may help clear away some of my dissatisfaction, I found myself grumbling that the resolution had come about too easily. As the one struggling through it all, Marina might disagree, but from the macro point of view, I found some of the decisions made on the part of the Arclight citizens to be too pat and contrary to their nature.

Ms. McQuein's debut is a harrowing post-apocalyptic sci-fi that makes me want to shimmy with delight. Despite my one misgiving (and my lack of analytical insight), I strongly encourage all of you to read Arclight ASAP. This is the book for you.

Edit: Forgot to add that I did guess the BIG TWIST ahead of time, but that makes it no less cool.

Favorite (non-spoilery) quote:
Now I'm sure there's a whole colony of the disgusting things multiplying somewhere out of sight. Probably somewhere behind my spleen. I'm not sure what a spleen is exactly, but it has a sinister sound to it, and seems like the perfect place for something malevolent to trench in.
Points Added For: World-building, danger and suspense, the Fade, the Well, Blanca, Rue, Anne-Marie.

Points Subtracted For: An ending that could have been stronger.

Good For Fans Of: Sci-fi, things that go bump in the night, philosophical questions mixed with heart-pounding action, post-apocalyptic worlds, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst (for reasons...)

Notes For Parents: Light language (that I can remember), violence.

Note: I was allowed access to a digital review copy by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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