(This is one of many of my reviews that I've re-written to prevent people from seeing how bad I sucked six months ago.)
Reasons to read this book:
Michael Grant likes it.
It features a male protagonist.
It is a post-apocalyptic story.
It's freaking awesome.
This is one of the most realistic post-apocalyptic books I've ever read. The entire thing was obviously very well researched, and Mullin does an excellent job of considering how people in an apocalypse would really act. In terms of how the characters survive, there are almost no shortcuts taken; at any given point in the story, it was a huge struggle for Alex and Darla to get food, water, and shelter. And really, isn't that the point of a survival story? Isn't that how they become scary, by potentially taking away the things we truly need to survive? Of course it is. Mullin definitely realizes this the way I do, and I think that's what really makes the book.
Take, for example, the central conflict. Alex is in his house alone when the super-volcano erupts. His parents have just left for a relative's house, leaving him home alone in his house. So, naturally, it's a bit of a problem for him that his parents are gone. He immediately goes on a long (long) journey to find them in the next state over, completely aware that it's a terrible idea. So, not only does he have to find food and water, but he has to keep it with him, and he has to find a different shelter each night. Not only that, but he doesn't have his parents to help him; for most of the book, it's just him and Darla. As I said before, there aren't very many shortcuts here; Alex is hungry, thirsty, and exhausted constantly throughout the novel. Not only that, but food doesn't conveniently jump onto his lap begging to be eaten (funny an image as that is). Mullin is willing to put Alex through real effort to make him survive - hence the survival genre. You'd be surprised by how many books make it easy for their characters, make survival secondary to their main plot. (Cough, And All the Stars, cough. Not that I didn't enjoy it anyway.) That's not the case here - the survival and the plot are essentially one and the same.
A lot of readers found Alex's emotional journey lacking. I think that it was a little more subtle than most, but that it was still well done. Alex does have some distance from the reader, because he's dealing with abnormal events. You can see in the things he does - rather than the things he says, which is what makes the arc so subtle - that he really is made insecure by what's going on. Why else would he look for his parents, rather than wait for them to find him or some other form of help? Why else would he stick so closely to Darla, rather than try to journey on his own? Mullin really has considered the emotional ramifications of an apocalypse, and although his portrayal of that is handled a bit differently than others, he's certainly done it. It's almost as if he's been through a disaster himself; the way he describes it - both the physical and the emotional elements - are stunningly accurate.
But this isn't a book that's obsessed with its concept. In a lot of books that have a unique premise (not that this premise is particularly unique, but shut up and let me make my point. I SAID SHUT UP! :), the premise will become everything, consuming things like plotting and character development. The best example I can think of off-hand is the short story A Thousand Flowers by Margo Lanagan from the anthologyZombies vs. Unicorns. The premise is very unique (and, um, horrifying), but if you don't find it interesting, the story is completely boring.
That's not what happens here. Granted, "I'm going to show the physical and emotional ramifications of a super-volcano eruption." isn't a bad premise to become obsessed with, but if you're unbearably bored by apocalypses, you're insane there's always Darla. Darla is usually cited (and I agree) as the more engaging character between her and Alex. But what I'm really talking about when I say that she's the remedy to your boredom with post-apocalyptic stories (God, that sentence was awful. Anyone has a better way to phrase that, feel free to let me know.) is that she has a wonderfully done romance with Alex. It's not going to consume everything*, but what we get of it works. It's not overly-intense, it's slow burning, and it comes organically, both through the story and the characters. There are also little bits of truth in the romances of teenagers scattered throughout the book. All this means that it doesn't matter if you don't like survival stories - I'm still requiring you to read this.
That being said, Mullin's prose leaves a little to be desired. Don't get me wrong, Alex's voice is believably rendered (I was never bothered by the use of big words), and it's mostly fine, but towards the end, there are a few scenes that honestly make no sense at all in the way they're described. It's too bad, because other than that, the action scenes were really good, but they're occasionally described in a way that made them confusing. But other than that, Mullin's writing is great; Alex's voice was believable, and there weren't any obvious grammatical slip-ups.
This is one of my very favorite books of all time. I love survival stories, I love emotional stories, and this one is both. I really hope you love it just as much as I do, because as I said earlier, you are required to read it.
*Imagine that! A seriously threatening situation where the romance is the focus! It would be laughable if it didn't describe most of YA.