It seems part of our growing reading culture to compare young adult series to those successes gone before it. As such, The 5th Wave has been receiving quite a few comparisons to The Hunger Games and similar novels like Divergent. Aside from being written with the same first person type of perspective (a perspective easier to write in), I see these as quite different books. In many ways The 5th Wave is a superior book, and yet it contains the same kind of thriller speed that drew me into The Hunger Games. I would personally compare them to another favourite series of mine: The Chaos Walking Cycle which begins with The Knife of Never Letting Go.
The story kicks off in a desolated, post-apocalyptic Earth, where our main protagonist Cassie explains all that has gone on before. The Earth has been attacked in a series of 'waves' by the Others - a group of unidentified aliens who aim to kill all life. Unfortunately I found this 'kill all people' point to be a little overemphasised, and there were moments at the start where I questioned whether the metaphors were being dealt with a little ham-fisted. But the book had plenty of upside as it was allowed to develop. Cassie (short for Cassiopeia) is a feisty heroine, and depending on your perspective, a well developed female character. Her motivations are clear to the reader (her love of her family and her fears that she cannot become attached to anyone again) and in that regard, better thought out and explained than many similar books.
Now, I should explain that the plot does not follow Cassie alone. It moves to her brother, Sammy, and a young man she knew from high-school: Ben. At first, due to the lack of explanation that we had switched viewpoints, I did not realise that there were these separate viewpoints. However, when I did, I found these differences to be highly refreshing. The story which follows is one which is a strong, thrilling and entertaining YA read. One of the more entertaining that I have found in the past few years...
Of course, there is the typical YA love-triangle beginings that I could detect. However, I found on the whole, that the way Rick Yancey handled the romance was rather beautiful, honest and better than in many YA stories. Rather than making the romance a key draw factor, it was part of the story. All good stories need some kind of romantic angle I do believe. As all good stories also need some kind of action element. These are parts of showing to readers that the characters are truly believable and interesting. After all, every person needs to be loved in some way and when you're at the end of the world, one of the survivors of the human race, love would be a challenge. And how Cassie is reluctant to love and be loved is very well handled.
Rick Yancey has an excellent control of his plot and characters on the whole. While the idea feels like typical YA silliness, there is a touch of genuineness to the novel which causes you to go beyond the idea that: yes, aliens have invaded and that yes there are more Ender's Game style training camp sessions going on. It may not have the gravitas of The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go, nor may it have the fun and humour of Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief, yet the bold calculation of this novel pays off in the end.
The themes within this novel are both obvious and subtle, perhaps more subtle than those seen in The Hunger Games. It is an interesting contradiction that I am making here by comparing the two, given my opening sentence, yet I feel it is necessary to indicate why I think this is a superior read. Where the ideas in the other novel are about censorship, freedom and individuality, the themes of The 5th Wave go beyond this. They take the idea of 'what happens after we consider the conclusion of those other series' (much as what The Knife of Never Letting Go does) and takes off from there. To that degree, the themes are more about the greatest enemies of humanity being within and not without. It is a book so obviously about the 'Other' and yet so subtly about the many fears, dreams and hopes we all have and what happens when those fears and hopes are taken away. It may start off slowly, but it is a novel that builds quickly and wonderfully.
There are clear issues to this novel, issues perhaps best described by this review (warning: there are spoilers). And yet, despite those flaws, it is easily one of the best YA novels published in 2013, because while it too has deep themes and political ideas like The Hunger Games, there is something more touching and more emotional in how those themes and ideas are handled. Perhaps because, as the linked review above states: "in playing a long game with his plot, Yancey builds characters who stand to lose so much and gain even more. And those are the best sorts of characters to build a series around." I could not agree more.