Monday, May 22, 2017

The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

Robin Wasserman's The Waking Dark opens with bloody murder and doesn't slow down for one minute from then. (If you read Black and Wasserman back-to-back, you might want to have a romantic comedy on standby to mellow out to afterward.) It's intense, compelling, and always a coming-of-age story first and a "scary, we might all die, hold on to your hats" suspense novel second. It has been compared in various places to the great works of Stephen King, and I agree that the influence is there, although The Waking Dark ends miles better than It. This is one part Stand by Me, one part Red Dawn (original not remake), and one part every single bad thing you've ever thought about the military industrial complex (see Super 8 for more on this). Mostly though it is just a blazingly good story and the sort of page-turner that will keep you up all night for sure.

In the opening pages five teens are directly involved in five separate gruesome murders (either as witnesses or participants) in the quiet town of Oleander, Kansas. In the days that follow the shell-shocked population searches for answers to the crimes, all of which were perpetrated by otherwise perfectly decent residents. As time goes by the teens struggle with their experiences while everyone else tries to dismiss the "Killing Day" as an aberration, wrapping themselves up in religion or denial and doing their level best to resume the rhythm of seasonal celebrations that dictated Oleander's calendar for decades. Then one year later a tornado rips through town, as they do in the Midwest, and all of the Oleander's secrets are blown apart. A quarantine follows, borders are erected, soldiers swarm the perimeter and the five protagonists must navigate a strange new world where societal rules seem to be slipping away in a rush for power, bloody vengeance and paranoia. This is Lord of the Flies times a million and it doesn't slow down until the last screaming page.

The plot of The Waking Dark certainly keeps readers riveted but where Wasserman truly excels is also King's strong point -- the characters. Daniel, West, Jule, Ellie and Cass are complex, thoughtful and extremely compelling. They introduce questions of God and fate, good and evil, and bravery and cowardice throughout the narrative and refuse to be pigeonholed into easy categories. All of them are strong and all of them are weak; they make choices both admirable and regretful and their long soul searching journeys, which encompass the entire book, are the stuff of epics. A high school hallway lives in The Waking Dark, and everyone you know passes through its pages, meeting challenges that none could have prepared for. Few will survive intact.

The most surprising part of The Waking Dark, though, is just how much fun it is to read. This story takes you away, it steals your breath, it shocks and amazes. Oleander is not Derry, Maine, but damn, it sure took me back.

This review was previously published in my YA column at

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