Robison Wells’ Blackout is, at first glance, just another typical dystopian YA novel. The chapters are short, the sentences shorter, and the vocabulary wouldn’t be a stretch for most junior high students. Good teenagers are in conflict with bad teenagers and seemingly every adult in existence; adults can’t be trusted as authority figures because they aren’t special and they exploit the people who are. I would guess that a potential blurb for the book might read as, “Who can you trust when your own body might betray you?”
Thankfully, Wells came up with an interesting premise — some American teenagers have mysteriously developed special powers, ranging from laughable (heating a liquid by blowing on it) to expected (mind control, super-strength) to terrifying (creating fissures in the earth via touch). The powers come with a price, generally a physical ailment, and some people experience that price whether they use their powers or not. This one detail, while small, adds depth and intrigue to the characters that might not ordinarily be found in a story about super-humans. Anyone who’s read a Superman or X-Men comic has imagined what it might be like to fly or shoot lasers from one’s eyes; what if doing so caused you to go temporarily blind or experience excruciating migraines? And if you were going to feel those side effects anyway, why not use your powers in a way that would benefit you?
The other driving force within Blackout is the involvement of a domestic terrorist group. As the novel progresses, this group has killed nearly 200,000 people; no one knows who they are, what they want, or how to stop them. Despite my initial skepticism at the idea of teenaged terrorists, I found that the group’s methods and targets, along with the reactions of military personnel and civilians alike, were well-researched and logical. I especially liked that the novel takes place in many locations which are overlooked in speculative dystopian fiction — Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Seattle. America is a big country, and there’s no reason to think that New York City or Washington, D.C. are the only important places in it.
Chapters are spilt between four narrators: Laura and Alec, who work with the terrorists, and Jack and Aubrey, who are captured by the government and put to work in opposition to those terrorists. Their narrative voices are generally interchangeable, with no emphasis on differentiating vocabulary or perception of similarly-experienced events, but their plots are interesting, and the large-scale action scenes are very well-written. Sections are occasionally interspersed with social media updates from someone named SusieMusie, and while the posts may seem annoying and inconsequential, their true purpose is quite ingenious.
Even though Blackout ends on a cliffhanger, it’s a logical place to end the story, and feels more like the end of Act One than a convenient place to stop dialogue. I have many unanswered questions, but I’m not upset, just deeply curious to find out what happens next in the second novel, Dead Zone, which concludes the BLACKOUT duology.
Blackout — (2013- ) Homeland meets Marie Lu’s Legend in Blackout, which #1 New York Times bestselling author Ally Condie called “a thrilling combination of Wells’s trademark twists and terror. Fantastic!” Laura and Alec are highly trained teenage terrorists. Jack and Aubrey are small-town high school students. There was no reason for their paths ever to cross. But now a mysterious virus is spreading throughout America, infecting teenagers with impossible superpowers—and all teens are being rounded up, dragged to government testing facilities, and drafted into the army to fight terrorism. Suddenly, Jack, Laura, Aubrey, and Alec find their lives intertwined in a complex web of deception, loyalty, and catastrophic danger—where one wrong choice could trigger an explosion that ends it all.