Wasteland by Susan Kim turned out to be a giant waste of my time. It really is the worst post-apocalyptic YA book I have read to date. Maybe that’s a terrible thing to say and some might say something like, “Hey, I don’t see you publishing a book.” That’s true, but I don’t think it’s necessary for me to publish a book to make such a statement. I have spent the last few years reading and reviewing 2-4 books of this genre per month, so I feel that gives me some credibility to take such a strong stand. I am not trying to hurt the author’s feeling, but I am sure that could be the result; however what I hope is that this honesty spurs her to do better. This is such an exciting genre that I look forward to reading these types of books and have generally been impressed by the quality of writing…I mean some writers might be tempted to rely on the world building and other action plot devices instead of the quality of the writing, so that’s why I am usually pleasantly surprised whenever I read something like this.
The plot consists of a town of kids and teens many years after an apocalyptic event. There aren’t any adults as when people turn eighteen they die of a horrible sickness and are expelled from the community. As there is such a short life span the milestones of adulthood are speeded up. Children are organized into work crews to scavenge for supplies and food and the teens ‘marry’ and bear children. The problem for the town in this story is there isn’t any left to scavenge in the area and food and water are running low. The latter is an especially big problem as once bottled water runs out you cannot drink from streams or lakes as all water is contaminated/poisoned. In addition to the kids who live in the town, there are beings that live on the outskirts. I say beings because they are not quite human, they look different than the kids and they are born hermaphrodites and then choose what sex they want to be when they turn a certain age. Due to their differences, they are shunned by the town kids who are prejudiced against them, though the main character in the story, Esther, is best friends with one of these variants, though they both hide it from their people. Add to these characters a young dictator who controls food and water supplies and a mysterious stranger who comes to town and you have a lot of characters, too many really, and none of them are written in a way where they appeared ‘real’ or made me care about them, they were all pretty cartoonish.
Some of my criticisms of the book include squeezing too many divergent plot points into the story, having superfluous characters, not enough development of the main characters and their motivations, multiple ‘surprises’ that can be guessed at from a mile away, and a truly gag inducing romance. I would say to the author, simplify, simplify, simplify. Have one main plot and at most one subplot. Develop the characters enough to make us actually be interested in then or care what happens to them. Axe the immature romance, you don’t always have to put a romance into this genre, can’t survivors just have strong bonds of friendships? I mean, I don’t think in the struggle to survive I would be thinking too hard about whether a boy ‘likes me’, do you agree? I could see sex in these books as a way to repopulate the earth after the apocalyptic event, but can you really have a lot of romance when every minute is a struggle to survive and due to lack of food and hygiene no one is really looking so hot?
I mean I really think writers of this genre start with an advantage over other authors as they have a lot of creative license when building worlds, and dramatic license based on the drama involved with an apocalyptic or dystopian environment. So with those in built strengths, focus on the writing itself, otherwise the books will come off as very one-dimensional, like the typical Hollywood action film.