Background: Last summer I reviewed Gone, the first book in a projected six-book series by Michael Grant. This week I read book 2 in the series, Hunger. This review may contain spoilers for Gone, though I will, as always, keep plot reveals about Hunger to a minimum.
Review: The premise of the Gone series is that in the small town of Perdido Beach, CA, everyone over the age of fourteen disappears in an instant. The remaining children and teens find themselves encased in an impenetrable bubble 20 miles in diameter, centered around a nuclear power plant. They don't know what's happening in the outside world, or even if the outside world exists. On their fifteen birthdays, kids have the opportunity to disappear, too, though there is way that they can avoid this. Meanwhile, inside the Fallout Alley Youth Zone (the FAYZ, as the kids have dubbed their bubble), some of the kids have developed various superpowers, such as invisibility, hyper-speed, and super-strength. There are two rival groups of kids, one living in Perdido Beach, and the other in an exclusive boarding school, Coates Academy, outside of town. There's also an evil force hidden deep within an old mineshaft, a dark shadow that reaches into the minds and influences the behavior of some of the kids from both communities.
Hunger begins three months after the events of Gone. Things are falling apart inside the FAYZ. Food is running out, bizarre mutated creatures are appearing. Even within their two communities, kids are starting to turn on one another. Sam, the elected leader of the Perdido Beach group, is worn out with the constant litany of problems facing his people. He's effectively parenting 300+ kids, but hardly any of them are willing to listen to him about what needs to be done. Sam's girlfriend, Astrid, is worried about him, and about her super-powerful, autistic young brother, Little Pete, who develops some new quirks. Mary, the head of the town daycare center, is in the throes of an eating disorder. Everyone, everywhere, is hungry. But these day-to-day problems are quickly overshadowed by the triple threat of a human/superhuman rift within Perdido Beach, a challenge from the Coates rivals (led by Sam's brother, Caine), and a plan by the hidden creature in the mine. The story begins 106 hours and 29 minutes before a climax (with the countdown visible at the start of each chapter).
So what we have, in summary, is a battle between kids with superpowers and a mysterious evil force, set against a backdrop of social unrest after a natural disaster. Dystopia fans will find this series hard to resist. Fair warning, though. Hunger is very bleak. In some ways, I found it more bleak than Life As We Knew It and the Dead and the Gone (two of my favorites, by Susan Beth Pfeffer). Poor Sam faces an unrelenting stream of problems - the boy gets scarcely a bright moment in the entire book. But I found the social dynamics of the book fascinating. There's a whole sub-plot centered around Albert, the boy in charge of the food, who is pushing for the re-introduction of money. He feels strongly that the only way to get kids to work is to give them some individual incentive. I found that whole thread well-done, without being at all message-y. I also liked the bits about kids adjusting to a dystopia set in a modern society - they miss Facebook and MySpace, and they want to keep their GameBoys charged, and so on. I think that this aspect of the book will add relevance for teens. Details like "He would trade his life for an In-N-Out Double-Double" (Chapter 33) add relatability, too.
The action and issues in Hunger are ratcheted up a level from Gone, making it a better read overall. Hunger would make an excellent movie or television series. Michael Grant is exceptionally skilled at parceling out conflict and amping up tension. The superpowers and the setting provide plenty of opportunity for dramatic special effects. The powers displayed by the kids, and the ways that they are used, and used against them, are quite inventive. Careful readers may also note some parallels between the superpowers and the needs or personalities of the kids who manifest them. For example, Bug is the kid who can pretty much make himself invisible. Here's a passage about Bug's background:
"At the worst of times, when his father had been out drinking with his girlfriend and they'd had a fight, Bug had learned to hide. His favorite place was in the attic because it was stuffed with boxes, and behind the boxes there was a spot where Bug could crawl under the eaves and lie flat on the insulation between cross-beams. His father had never found him there." (Chapter 7)
My only real quibble about the book is that, despite my musings on the superpowers, I found the characterization a bit flat. Hunger is filled with interesting characters. They are well constructed, in a technical sense, with strengths and weaknesses and motivations. The frequent viewpoint shifts allow the reader to see different sides of the characters. However, even when a character was a viewpoint character, I just couldn't get inside. I felt like I was always observing the characters, but never quite internalizing their issues. I'm sure this is at least in part because there are so many characters, but I also think it goes along with my feeling that this would make a great movie, that you observe, more so than a book that you live inside.
Still, I think that kids will enjoy the series. Just tell them it's Heroes meets Lord of the Flies, and see what happens. I recommend the Gone series for teens or adults, though not for younger kids. There is some disturbing content, and, as I said before, the tone is rather bleak. But fans of young adult dystopian fiction won't want to miss this installment of an intriguing series. It's better than the first book. I'm happy to know that there are four more titles planned.
Publication Date: May 26, 2009
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher (note that quotes should be checked against the final book)
Other Blog Reviews: Bunny Review, Sharon Loves Books and Cats, Steph Su Reads, Best Book I Have Not Read (this last one was the review that made me want the book)
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.