- Caine (being all condescending): "So, your father disappears and you don't even want to know why? Interesting. Me, I've always wanted to know who my real parents were."
- Sam: "Let me guess: you're secretly a wizard who was raised by muggles."
Every now and then I get blindsided. I really had no expectations for GONE when I first picked it up, and certainly I didn't expect to become so caught up in the book. GONE is Michael Grant's first entry in his new YA series, and it just might be the juice I've been looking for to accomodate what I like to call my "Harry Potter fix." If you're like me, then GONE just may also be your huckleberry. 558 pages of this thing, and I tore thru it in a day and a night.
It only takes a moment to shatter a world, change it irrevocably and forever. One day, all the adults and kids older than 14 simply vanished, leaving the younger children stranded in the suddenly desolate tiny town of Perdido Beach, California. Then a shimmering, impenetrable wall is discovered, a wall which spans all the way around Perdido Beach, and up and below, in effect sealing off the town and its outskirts from the rest of the world (if they're even still in their own world).
No grown-ups. No doctors, no firefighters, policemen, or teachers. No parents. Left to fend for themselves, several of the children try to make do. But it's hard to do the right thing when you're ill equipped to handle adult responsibilities and the bullies are swaggering. But then even the local thugs are forced to fall in line when the students of the creepy Coates Academy come to town. The Coates retinue is led by the charismatic teenager Caine, who promptly takes control of the Perdido Beach community, to the relief of many. However, relief turns to apprehension when it dawns on everyone that there's something a shade off and ugly with Caine. And, for sure, there's something wrong with his sadistic enforcer, Drake.
Things have gotten even more weird. The laws of physics and evolution are being tossed aside. Not only are people popping out of existence once they turn 15, but animals are rapidly mutating. In fact, several of the kids are manifesting frightening, freakish abilities. And something strange and malevolent is lurking in the wilderness. The children of Perdido Beach tend to look to Sam Temple, a level-headed fourteen-year-old. But Sam is as scared as the rest of them and doesn't want the burden of leadership. Because Sam has a secret. He thinks he may be the cause of all this...
And, even more worrisome, he's only days away from turning 15.
GONE is an apocalyptic thriller, and it is an irresistable read. The kids will snap this up. Heck, the adults will snap this up. There are echoes here of THE STAND, LORD OF THE FLIES, the X-Men, and even of young Billy Mumy from that chilling Twilight Zone episode. But GONE comes with its own fully fleshed out story, and it sets a driving pace. Plenty of blistering action sequences and sci-fi twists and turns. Author Michael Grant stabilizes things with his deft handling of the characters. The main protagonists are Sam (a.k.a. School Bus Sam, and very appealing as the reluctant hero) and Ingrid (the Genius), whose care and concern she shows for her friends and especially for her 4-year-old autistic brother balance out her intimidating brains and sometimes cold demeanor. But then we also bond with the supporting cast, as we get to know them. I ended up really liking the teens who respectively took charge of the daycare, the doctor's office, and the local McDonald's. Quinn is Sam's best friend and his personal arc is notable for its strong and unflinching character development. Quinn comes up with choices that may be unpopular but, I think, more realistic than we'd prefer. Quinn ends up jeopardizing his relationship with Sam, and, as the book went on, I did wonder if their friendship would be salvageable. My final word on Grant's fine developing of his cast is that, you know, even some the bullies end up shaking off their cliches.
Michael Grant also doesn't neglect to explore the fallout of a world suddenly without adults (and, yes, there are some pretty disturbing, tragic consequences). From dwindling food supplies to medical care to housing and on to other civic responsibilities, etc. Caine may be deranged, but he sure can organize (Sam ends up being the Fire Dept. chief). Narrated mostly from Sam's point of view, GONE still has enough chapters told by various other people that we do get a more rounded perspective of the story. Key chunks of the novel deal with the reveal of several sci-fi and fantasy elements. One particular entity bodes well to be the Big Bad of the series. And you just know the local nuclear power plant will be heard from again. Same thing with the sinister Coates Academy.
GONE does give up some answers (we do learn, for example, what happens to Sam on his 15th birthday and what caused the adults to go poof!). And we sense from the start that Sam and Caine are heading for a big showdown. But, really, the book ends with more truths undivulged, things left unresolved, and the readers clamouring for more. All part of Michael Grant's evil plan, I'm sure, as this is only the first installment for what promises to be an enthralling series.
The hook boils down to this: kids are alone and under attack. Michael Grant builds on that premise and comes up with a very suspenseful read. Partly a morality play and partly a young romance and mostly a hectic otherworldy thriller, this one offers up freakish-powered children jostling for supremacy and ordinary folks stepping up to the plate. GONE is just creepy enough that you tend to take it a tad more seriously than the other YA sci-fi/fantasy stuff out there. As an apocalyptic thriller, this one gets it right. Sequel, please.