Blackout by Robison Wells, HarperTeen, 2013
Dead Zone by Robison Wells, HarperTeen, 2014
As this is the second, and concluding book, in a series I thought I’d start with my review of the first book, Blackout. And hooray to Robison Wells for ending it at two, thus avoiding the filler middle book in a trilogy syndrome!
Teen terrorists with superpowers are crippling America’s infrastructure in this YA scifi action pageturner. They have been deliberately infected with the Erebus virus, which manifests itself with apparently random super-abilities. But now there are teens who have unwittingly caught the virus, though the authorities can’t tell the difference.
The story is told from four perspectives – Alec and Laura are terrorists, Aubrey and Jack are not – but the characters and voices are thinly developed and are little more than an extension of their powers: Alec can create false memories and is sneaky and manipulative; Aubrey is a shy wallflower who can make herself invisible.
Much like Wells’ Variant (Harper, 2011), the fast-paced plot sags a little in the middle then revs up to an explosive finale and cliffhanger ending. Questions about Erebus and the terrorists are left unanswered and, though the X-Men are at least acknowledged, the central ideas are somewhat derivative. Nonetheless, readers who enjoy high speed thrillers will find plenty to like about Blackout and will be eager for the sequel.
And here comes the sequel….
Russia has invaded the Pacific Northwest, using an incredibly powerful mutant who has the super-ability to knock out all power within an 8 mile radius. Aubrey and Jack are in the American army now, along with a couple of new lambda (as the mutants are referred to) friends, and they are put on the frontline to eliminate this weapon.
As in the previous book, characterization in pretty shallow – plot and action thrills are the purpose – but it is structurally more coherent and tighter than Blackout, making it easily accessible as a standalone. Jack and Aubrey take up the lion’s share of the narrative, and the other two viewpoints, while significant subplots, are cursory. Explanations are clearly for cissies, so we never really get much of the big picture as to why bad ol’ Russia came up with this complicated plan to undermine the U.S., and questions raised in Blackout are quietly (and wisely) ignored – though they may have been covered in the Going Dark novella, which I haven’t read.
There are some thoughtful conversations on the use of the teens as “assets”, and some not very original thoughts about being a soldier (“war sucks”). Occasionally, Wells get a bit too Tom Clancy in his descriptions of guns and vehicles, which slows the pace and feels like padding. Though Aubrey, in particular, is affected by killing enemies, most of the lambdas become stoic about fighting a war pretty quickly, and the occasional reminiscence about burgers and dances bring the characters back to regular teendom.
All in all, Dead Zone is a rollercoaster action fest, and I felt that the clarity of the plotting made it a superior read to Blackout.