At the end of this book, after we've searched and learned and discovered for 350 pages along with the protagonists, author Scott Sigler leaves 'an oh-so-polite request' for reviewers like me and readers like you not to spoil that process. I can appreciate this and will try as hard as I always do to avoid spoilers, but it's going to be a little difficult this time out.
You see, I believe Sigler thinks that he's hidden a lot more than he actually has. I think that he's including a particular discovery about the whereabouts of the characters in that 'oh-so-polite request'. Unfortunately it's so clear that I'd taken it as a given before I'd even reached chapter one and I would be rather surprised if any other science fiction reader won't do the same.
This is 'book one of the Generations trilogy', folks. It says so on the title page. The back cover blurb details a teenage girl awakening to find herself inside a coffin, from which she escapes into a room of twelve coffins, each containing another teenager as mystified as she. They take their names from the engravings on the ends of their coffins and step outside, into a corridor full only of bones and dust.
Now, if that doesn't tell you exactly where they are, then I should add some minor details from the first few pages. The six living children who escape from these coffins are oblivious of who they are, where they came from and what they're doing here, but they all know that it's their twelfth birthday, even though they all seem to be nineteen or twenty. The walls are white, the corridors are lit by a glowing ceiling and there are esoteric controls in evidence, mostly broken, that none of them understand but some can perhaps figure out to a degree.
It was so obviously apparent to me what and where these children are that I moved on immediately, failing to even register that I'd figured out a plot twist. The last time I did that was when I watched 'The Sixth Sense' and it took two thirds of the running time for me to realise that the plot twist of which I had heard so much was something I'd taken for granted from the very beginning. Perhaps most other viewers hadn't read or seen 'The Survivor'. It may well be that Sigler's audience will be people who haven't read a single work of classic science fiction. That's OK. I hope they discover.
Fortunately, while 'The Sixth Sense' relied too much on that twist, 'Alive' has a lot more going for it. There's still discovery to be found, as this set of characters explore their shared environment, as they aren't just learning about where they are but who they are in a way that emulates a host of other famous books from 'Lord of the Flies' to 'Tunnel in the Sky'. This is not as good as either of those but it's good enough to be worthy of serving the same purpose to a new generation of readers, most of whom I would expect will be young, eager and open to possibility.
Our heroine is M. Savage, who escapes first. She actually did escape too, by breaking open the mechanisms that enclosed her, unlike T. Spingate, the next to wake up, who needs help. Soon there are six of them, three boys and three girls, with six others dead; the term 'coffins' appropriate for them.
Initially the delineation is by character. Spingate seems to be able to work stuff out. J. Yong is just an ass. K. Bello is quiet and sensitive, while K. O'Malley is cautious and protective. B. Aramovsky is a coward and bully, but it's soon assumed that Savage is their leader, even if she's a little shorter than the others. When Yong pushes her into a confrontation, he ends up dead and she ends up firmly in charge.
But that's never an absolute and, as much as she does lead the group, she's constantly torn between whether she can or should lead. She looks at the next level of delineation: the symbols on their foreheads, which become more easily correlated to character when we get a quarter of the way through and discover more children. The fighters have circle-stars. Those with jagged circles are drawn together. Others feature circle-crosses, half-circles or, like Savage, empty circles. Only one, Aramovsky, has a circle in a circle, which literally marks him as someone different, something that becomes clear as the book runs on.
Sigler does a good job of making his characters try to figure things out and, in doing so, he does a good job of making us figure things out too. He writes a good puzzle and I'm sure that, while a good part of it is figured out by the time this book wraps, there's plenty of room for a lot more discovery in the final two volumes. For instance, this mostly has to do with the present: who these people are, where they are and why they're there, not to mention who will be in charge and where they can find food and water. There are a lot more questions in where they came from and where they're going to that aren't as well answered, presumably because that's fodder for the sequels.
The only part of the mystery that I didn't like were the attempts that Sigler seemed to make to obfuscate things. Maybe he figured out partway that some of the audience would have seen through the central mystery from moment one, so he put some effort into confusing us into doubting ourselves.
Sure, the floors, ceilings and corridors are uniformly lit and clearly man-made, but the rare doors appear to be made of stone. The character names are from multiple nationalities and ethnicities but the symbology they find is relatively consistent to being either ancient Egyptian or, more likely, some kind of native central American, maybe Incan or Mayan. This makes for an odd mix of old and new technology, an anachronism that I'm still yet to fully understand. As far as two thirds of the way into the book, Sigler uses it to attempt to confuse us, which is unworthy at that point.
I liked 'Alive' and will happily take a look at the sequel, whenever it shows up. It ought to be in many ways an easy progression from this book, given all that goes down towards the end of it, but it ought also to be very different indeed, given what changes because of all that goes down towards the end of the book. Perhaps, if this was a take on 'Lord of the Flies', book two will attempt to take on 'Tunnel in the Sky' and I'm all for that.
Digging deeper than perhaps most will, at least consciously, this is a decent look at what makes us human, especially for what is presumably a young adult novel that includes some violence but obscures other more mature material. M. Savage is thrust into a leadership role without preparation or, to be fair, a lot of willingness, but she tries her best, even when times get tough and the people she leads aren't so fond of being led.
Sigler made a wise decision to spend such a long time with such a small cast; it allowed him to delve deeper into the psyches of those initial characters before he thrust circumstances upon them that led to further growth. Many characters grow here, both ones we care about and those we don't. I was impressed with how Sigler wrangled them all, highlighting how carefully he must have thought about what really happens in outwardly simple situations, allowing him to grow the story naturally around the growth of the characters. That, in itself, bodes well for future books because I'm sure he's already sown seeds that I haven't noticed yet.
Hopefully that avoids spoilers to Sigler's satisfaction, though I do want to see how many other writers don't acknowledge the location reveal as a spoiler. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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