Why is Astrid on the cover? Why is Dekka NOT on the cover? And who’s the other guy?
What happened to Edilio’s crush on Lana? What happened to Sam’s post-traumatic stress? What exactly is Astrid’s mutant power and why is it not making any appearances? Does the town council ever actually do anything? Does Astrid have a job? If she does, what is it? And most importantly, why exactly is this series so long? These questions and many others bounced across my mind several times as I read Plague by Michael Grant. Needless to say, I am very disappointed.
In Plague, the FAYZ is running low on water, so Albert sends Sam, Dekka, Computer Jack, and Taylor to try to find another lake. But while Sam and some of the town’s most powerful mutants are gone, all hell breaks loose as Drake escapes, a deadly plague breaks out, and flesh-eating bugs attack the town.
One thing I really liked in this book was the strength of the supporting characters. Grant has shown quite an aptitude for character development. Dahra, Dekka, Lana, Sanjit, and Orc were especial standouts in this book. He even managed to make Astrid somewhat interesting. In fact, the supporting characters are so strong, I would argue that the series is not Sam, Astrid, Caine, and Diana’s story anymore (although the covers are still trying to tell us it is). It is the story of the people in the FAYZ, specifically the dozen or so who narrate or figure prominently in the books. And that makes the story stronger, because we see everything through so many different perspectives and get to know so many great people along the way.
The book also brings up some very interesting themes. There’s been a lot of religious symbolism and discussion in these books (although it’s sometimes incorrect. For example, the Catholic church no longer considers suicide a mortal sin). I feel like this is the first book that actually did something with it. Astrid’s struggles to apply her faith to the desperate circumstances in which she lives are very compelling. Catholic moral philosophy states that the result of a wrong action never justifies that action, but the choices Astrid is forced to make show the flaws in that philosophy. Grant effectively makes the point that there are no true moral absolutes.
Britney’s transformation also makes a point about religion. Britney has a tendency to completely devote herself to certain people or causes. We saw this in her unwavering loyalty to Edilio in Hunger, and her belief that she is God’s messenger in Lies. In some ways, this complete loyalty was a very good thing. For example, in Hunger, she stayed and tried to defend the power plant when no one else would. But this book shows the reader how dangerous that fanaticism can be. Britney believes the gaiaphage is God, and this leads her to attack Astrid, Orc, Jack, and Little Pete with an army of flesh-eating bugs. Britney’s transformation points out the fine line between faith and fanaticism.
Grant also tries to make a point about fear and prejudice. In previous reviews, I mentioned how much I liked the Human Crew as villains. In this book, they return, but now, they aren’t only targeting the mutants. They’ve noticed that many of the people on the town council are people of color, and they feel that it is unfair that the “normal people” are not represented. In the FAYZ, there are no socioeconomic inequalities stopping people of certain races from succeeding, so it is possible to become successful simply by working hard. The people who are working hard happen to be people of color in this universe. However, racial biases are still present. The members of the (mostly white) Human Crew literally cannot accept a world in which white people are not dominant. This is a startling parallel to certain reactionary movements that are developing today as a response to feminist, anti-racist, and gay rights activism.
On that note, as has been the case for the entire series, the racial representation is very good (even though the publisher seems to be deliberately avoiding putting any characters of color on the covers). Yes, Howard, who is black, is a drug dealer. However, people of color are also portrayed as leaders, fire chiefs, doctors, sassy teleporters, happy-go-lucky helicopter pilots, nurses, bitter healers, pessimistic little brothers, and powerful, stoic mutants, which balances out the problematic portrayal of Howard. The female characters are also getting better. Astrid, Lana, Dahra, Dekka, Brianna, Diana, and Taylor all have agency in their stories. They use their particular talents to get what they want, make their own decisions and are generally not defined by their love interests. The only exception here is Lana, whose story in this book focuses more on her relationship with Sanjit than her personal healing process. Unfortunately, while Diana taking advantage of her sexuality to try to stop Caine from hurting people was interesting, she is now pregnant with what will probably be an evil mutant baby. Like most other Mystical Pregnancies, I’m sure this will reduce her to a be-wombed plot device.
Now, those are the parts of the book I enjoyed. But there were definitely parts that I did not enjoy. And the one that bothered me most was that Caine is now an important part of the plot again.
I hate Caine. He is probably one of my least favorite villains ever. The other characters I disliked in the first book have since grown on me because Grant developed them and gave them more depth. Sam’s responsibilities as a leader forced him to grow, Astrid’s struggle with her faith has been compelling, and Drake’s egregious evilness is justified now that he’s been possessed by the gaiaphage. Caine has no depth. His emotions are not realistic. We are told that he desperately wants power, but why? Why is this teenaged boy so obsessed with world domination? He is unrealistically creepy and analytical about his relationship with Diana. Whenever he makes a speech, he sounds corny, pompous, and cartoonish, and yet he somehow is able to win everyone in the FAYZ over. Caine is a terrible villain and he brings the quality of the series down.
Also, the continuity is becoming a bit weird. I mentioned some plot holes at the beginning of the review, but I’d like to focus on one which particularly bothered me. In the last book, Sam was struggling with post-traumatic stress from his encounter with Drake. I liked where Grant was going with that, and enjoyed reading about Sam’s healing process. But in this book, it was completely gone. I’m no expert, but I don’t think post-traumatic stress just goes away like that. This and other plot holes really threw me off.
I attribute the series’ plot holes to the length of the series, which brings me to my next point. This series is unnecessarily long. This book, in particular, seemed unnecessary. The overarching plot of the series is the characters finding out how to defeat the gaiaphage and escape the FAYZ. There was no forward motion in this plot at all. I still have no idea what the gaiaphage is or what its motivation is. I still have no idea what’s behind the FAYZ wall. I still have no idea how they’re going to escape. Sure, there was a battle with the gaiaphage, and Perdido Beach split into two separate towns, but neither of those things are going to make that much of a difference in the long run.
So, although I did enjoy reading this book, I found it completely unnecessary. I’m not happy about Caine’s return as a villain, and I’m not happy about Sam’s character regression. I’m ranking this Good, and I turn, with a heart heavy with dread, towards Fear.