In The Young World, a mysterious sickness has wiped out the adults and small children. The teenage survivors of New York City have assembled into tribes in order to get by. When his brother turns eighteen and dies of the Sickness, Jefferson reluctantly becomes the leader of the Washington Park tribe. With resources running low, he sets off with Donna, the girl he’s secretly in love with, and a few other tribe members to track down what could be a cure for the Sickness. With a plethora of risks – enemy gangs, creepy cults, and a city generally gone wild – the possibility of saving the world seems near impossible, but they have to go on some way.
Okay, so I didn’t know who Chris Weitz was when I picked up this book. I didn’t know he was an Oscar-nominated writer and director nor that he worked on films like About a Boy, The Golden Compass, and American Pie, to name a few. To be perfectly honest, I picked The Young World up at BEA without reading the description and when I was looking through my stack of books for something new one morning, I settled on it mostly because I didn’t want to make too much noise. I wasn’t really excited about it. My reaction to reading the description was closer to a sigh accompanied with the thought: “alright, I guess I can do yet another dystopian fiction novel.” But when I actually got into the story, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it.
First off, it’s hard not to like a reluctant hero. Jefferson is idealistic and noble, but the responsibility over other’s lives weighs heavily on him. Plus he’s got a more typically heroic big brother to live up to and a crush on a girl who doesn’t really seem to think of him romantically at all, so there’s a good dollop of teenage angst in there to round things out (what would a YA book be without it).
While the chapters of the novel told from Jefferson’s point of view are fairly typical of first person narration, those told from Donna’s perspective are delightfully conversational. She had me from her opening paragraph:
“A lot of books you read, the author thinks it’s cool to have an ‘unreliable narrator.’ To keep you guessing and to acknowledge that there are no absolutes, and everything is relative, or whatever. Which I think is kind of lame. So – just so you know – I am going to be a reliable narrator. Like, totally. You can trust me.”
Of course, such self-justification is always a warning alarm that no, the narrator is not reliable, but it was a nice nod to literary analysis and set Donna as a unique voice within the novel. What I found particularly interesting about having the two different narrators was how, despite starting as very different perspectives, their points of view became more similar as the novel progressed. I even had to stop a few times and remind myself who was narrating.
While I’m still waiting for a YA novel that doesn’t have some form of love triangle, Weitz’s romance story line wasn’t overly annoying for the most part. Sure there was lots of “what does love even mean in times like this” deliberation, but at least the characters actually discussed their emotions and their hesitations weren’t really about trusting one another.
Concerning the plot, I’ve read the no adults thing before (Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children is one such example), but I didn’t take too much issue with that because, really, to give children agency in nearly all books of this nature you need to get rid of the adults one way or another (that’s why mentor characters often get killed). At least if they’re dead then you have the characters dealing with grief in addition to growing up on their own. The skeptical minded might have to work at suspending their disbelief when it comes to some of the abilities of these kids though.
Anyway, the Sickness brings with it the downfall of society, but also the potential for something new. At least that’s how Jefferson starts to think when the possibility of a cure arises. His musings on how, or rather how not, to rebuilt society are interesting and the novel includes a fair amount of commentary on capitalism, race, gender, and sexuality. (Points for having a diverse cast, too.)
The YA genre seems fond of trilogies and The Young World already has a sequel out, so I can’t say too much more without reading the rest. As interesting as it is to have YA series reveal bigger and bigger stakes as the next books progress (I’m talking about how Hunger Games isn’t actually so much about the games as it is about overthrowing an unjust society, or how Divergent isn’t about fitting into a faction but rather a wider conspiracy about experiments in developing a new society), I’m hoping this one doesn’t take the road already traveled. It’s set up quite a bit and I’d like to see something unique come of it all.
Final verdict: The Young World sets up a series that has potential. It follows convention, but has some good characters and an action-packed plot.