Narratives are full of heroes saving the day, of beautiful teenagers that sacrifice themselves for the good of the World, only to find some sort of deadly-peril-loophole and live to fight another day. World intact. Films, TV shows, books; they're all about the righteous, the brave, the heroic young things with the fate of the World at their feet. Not this one. Though that is going on, somewhere (in the brilliantly tongue-in-cheek chapter previews, a beautiful-but-doesn't-see-it Indie kid named Satchel fights for the souls of Earth and the hearts of Finns 1 and 2, Dylan and an alien Prince) this book follows the more ordinary kids. The ones who want to graduate high school before it gets blown up and go to prom and not die. The kids who worry about their own futures and their families and are vaguely aware of the paranormal weirdness that goes on from time to time but aren't really involved. If you're in your 20s (edit: or 30s!) it's this; it's the story that belongs to all those anonymous kids that Buffy Summers went to school with. The ones in their funny 90s jeans and too-big, too-bright t shirts that carry folders around the corridors, hang out near the lockers, vaguely wonder why Buffy and her crew spend so much time at the library but never pass any classes and why do they always look so worried and go running off into the woods at the drop of a hat. Also remember that time a snake ate the principal?
Narrated by Mikey, a senior year student with some debilitating OCD issues and tendencies, he recounts the events of his last few weeks at school with his sister Mel (recovering anorexic), Henna (beautiful Finnish-African-American, totally in love with her) and Mikey's BFF Jared, who's a lovely, caring gay footballer player and 1/4 God. So it's a pretty mixed bag, character wise. It's very much emphasised throughout that everybody has their things that they need to deal with; pushy parents, alcoholism, mental health issues, illness, religion- and for an individual floored by circumstances, coping with the every day can be just as daunting and impossible as actually saving the world. I loved these characters and desperately wanted them to be happy. Despite the somewhat odd things happening off in the background somewhere, I loved how ordinary they were, how they worry about keeping in touch and who get to find out secrets first. Their friendship was so completely believable and the reader really understands the intensity of teen cliques, the dependency of each person on the support and presence of one another. At its heart it's a story about life changing friendship and being able to love people, flaws and all.
As far as plot goes, there isn't really an epic narrative...well there is, there's a potential apocalypse of blue light and body-stealing aliens developing off-stage, but Ness doesn't follow that story; we know it already. What we follow is a bunch of teens coming to terms with the end of school, the end of their group and the start of something new and scary and unknown. It's the end of life as it's always been. That's a tough time for any teen, even without anxiety issues and eating disorders and all of the insane things that parents get up to to make things even tougher, like running for State Senate. I loved the empathy that was so apparent amongst the characters, how sensitive they were to each other's moods and needs, but definitely okay with pointing out who's being a diva and who needs to get over themselves on this occasion. So definitely completely realistic and true to life and just so, so relatable.
It's no secret that I'm a huge Patrick Ness fan. The way he can weave the reader's emotions into whatever fabric he wants is remarkable. His characters are always believable; flawed, empathetic, heartbreaking in the way they struggle through the difficulties they face. Not always in a "put-upon hero" way, but also in an "I'm doing my best with what I've got, leave me alone" kind of way too. His characters are survivors, even when they feel crap and are at their wit's end and have a bit of a cry. There is so much for readers of all ages and experiences to take from his characters and his stories; everyone can find somebody who is a bit like them in a Patrick Ness book. How valuable and incredible is that?
It's a novel very different (plot wise) to anything Ness has done before, but many of his themes of loss and strength and coming to terms with internal demons are all present and correct. It's an ingenious concept, that you don't need to be The Chosen One to have a story worth telling and to have a meaningful, important life. It's also very funny, and you will think "OMG YES THIS, EXACTLY THIS" so often that you will begin to annoy yourself. If you enjoyed this book, I'd also recommend All of The Above, by Juno Dawson for another mismatched bunch of BFFs trying to live life as best they can, baggage and all. I'd certainly recommend Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seasons 1-7 also, because it's amazing and just ignore the rubber monster costumes.