When you were a kid, did you ever play Disaster? It’s not a formal game that I’m aware of, but between my own childhood and my time working in daycare, it’s one of those games–like “House”, or “School”–that I saw played out again and again.
The basic premise is this: Something really bad has happened. You and whoever else is playing with you that day have to deal with the Really Bad Thing, which will usually involve some sort of natural disaster (and which I imagine varies from region to region, based on which natural disasters are most likely in your hometown–around here, it was tornadoes). And then because kids are kids and therefore masters of one-upmanship, another Really Bad Thing will happen–if at all possible, worse than the first Really Bad Thing–and then additional Really Bad Things will happen, and by the time recess is over, it’s full-tilt apocalypse and you and your friends are running around trying to survive what is essentially Sharknado Jr. I remember an afternoon in elementary school when two friends were over, and what started as a fun game of “Let’s pretend we’re preschool teachers and all these dolls are the kids in our class” devolved into “…but it’s not just one tornado coming at us–there’s one coming from every direction! There’s like four tornadoes, and they’re all heading right at the daycare center, and we have to keep all the kids safe!”
That, gang, is the premise behind Emmy Laybourne’s Monument 14.
…well, ok, not the Four Tornadoes, One Daycare Center scenario; that one belongs to me, Melissa, and Callie, and we expect to get the movie option paperwork soon. But Monument 14 starts with a similar round of Really Bad Thing plus Really Badder Thing plus OMG Such A Bad Thing; specifically, a busload of kids is hit by the WORST HAILSTORM EVER and crashes into the side of a Walmart-style superstore…and the bus driver goes to get help and doesn’t come back, so the kids turn on the tv, and we learn that the hailstorm is the result of a volcanic eruption. That caused a MEGATSUNAMI (we don’t do anything halfway around here). Which causes an earthquake. Which causes a breach at the nearby bioweapons development laboratory, which releases bioweapons into the air.
I’d picked this one up because it’s the first of a series, and I’m a sucker for book series–they take so much thinking out of it all, y’know, because when you finish one book, the next one is all queued up and ready for love. And this one is a post-apocalyptic YA (duhh), and we all know how I feel about those (passion of a thousand rolling megatsunamis, that’s how).
But y’know, there’s only so high my eyebrow can go before it runs out of forehead and starts trying to infiltrate my hairline. So as I was reading the first few chapters, I found myself straining at my face’s northern boundary even as my willingness to suspend disbelief was being stretched like an overworked rubber band.
I forged ahead–I mean, once the chemical weapons are in the air, there’s not much going back–and I admit, there was a certain element of curiosity involved. But then we ran into the next problem: I didn’t really care about the characters, any of them, except in this mild “that’s nice, dear” sort of way…and so while I had a vague interest in seeing what they would decide to do with the contents of the superstore and their survival at stake, I wasn’t really rooting for them. And then–heaven help me–one of the older kids found the stash of narcotics in the pharmacy. You can tell where that’s headed.
Oh, and as fair warning, someone has apparently optioned this book for a movie, with a tentative release date in 2015. Plan your life accordingly.
So here’s the bottom line: playing Disaster is great fun when you’re eight. Daydreaming idly about what you’d do if you found yourself in a superstore during the Apocalypse is entertaining, and a fun way to pass the time (…or is that just me being weird again?). But there comes a point when your novel has to have something redeeming about it–super-compelling characters, really tight storyline, amazing writing, something, anything, dear lord give me anything at all–or it just becomes an omnishambles that really, really feels like it needed an editor to have the guts to stand up at any point during its development and say “No. No more. The only thing missing from this is a rain of alligators or an actual sharknado, and I am currently terrified about what you’re planning to put in the sequel to this book”. And apparently Laybourne, bless her heart, had nobody with the guts to say that to her. So here we sit, with this book full of EVERYTHING IS BAD AT ONCE, and a forthcoming movie and a series of sequels…and a startling number of reviewers who will tell you the book is brilliant and exhilarating, when mostly it’s just the sort of story that makes you non-committally curious about what happens next (pro tip: I hit up the internet, found out how the story plays out, and was totally satisfied. Total time spent, about 3 minutes. Which is much less of a waste than the time I would’ve spent reading the novels. Yeesh).
TL;DR: Wow, that’s a lot of Really Bad Stuff happening at once. Monument 14 is the story of a group of kids trying to survive a hailstorm/megatsunami/earthquake/bioweapons containment breach from inside the superstore where their bus crashed…and it’s the sort of book that makes an excellent argument for why editors really need to have the courage to stand up to their writers.
Rating: 5/10 Muddy Hoofprints. I can see where some 14-year-olds would really dig this, y’know, because OMG ALL THE DOOM (plus some fairly attractive teenage characters running around). But this is not one of those books that is going to make the jump to having a rabid adult fanbase. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s even going to have a rabid YA fanbase. I do, however, hope they put Michael Bay in charge of the movie, ’cause he’s pretty much the only person who I think could do this particular story justice.