Authors: Neal and Jarrod Shusterman
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Alyssa talks to her friend Sofia about the water crisis.
Content warnings: Violence, death, loss of a loved one, threat of sexual assault, implied sexual coercion, toxic masculinity
I’ve really enjoyed Neal Shusterman’s books in the past, and this one, co-written with his son, certainly had an interesting premise given all of the debate around climate change in the past few years, the idea being that the entirety of Southern California runs out of water when neighbouring states block their water supplies. I can’t say that this one is one of my favourites of his, the plot was intense and fast moving, but the characters are pretty flat and difficult to connect with. Also I had quite a lot of issues with some of the toxic masculinity and slut shaming that came up in this book. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
Everyone’s going to remember where they were when the taps ran dry.
The drought—or the tap-out, as everyone calls it – has been going on for a while. Life has become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t take long showers, don’t panic. But now there is no water left at all.
Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation and violence. When her parents go missing, she and her younger brother must team up with an unlikely group in search of water. Each of them will need to make impossible choices to survive.
The premise for this book is obviously very interesting: water is one of the primary things that humans need to survive, so obviously not being able to access it puts people in very tricky situations and the Shustermans definitely dive into all the different reactions and ways that people coped with the crisis.
The situations that the characters find themselves in are very intense, which leads to a fast paced plot with a lot happening. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I like books that have a lot going on, but the issue here is that there is so much going on that the characters suffer for it.
The characters were definitely my biggest issue with this book. They all seem relatively flat, character archetypes because dealing with a crisis means you need certain types of characters and they don’t seem to get expanded much beyond that one trait. Alyssa is the sympathetic one who wants to help others, Garrett is the “smart for his age” kid, Kelton is the guy who’s been preparing for the apocalypse, Jacqui is the mysterious badass and Henry is jerk who is using everyone. Sure, they all have to deal with challenges, but there’s just not enough time given in the book for anyone to have any real development. This meant that as a reader, I never felt all that attached to any of the characters.
I also think there were a few too many character POVs, it’s a group of five and everyone gets a POV at some point. Whilst I’m not opposed to multiple POV stories, in fact I love a lot of them, the perspectives don’t feel wildly different because the characters just aren’t developed enough, so in this case, the multiple perspectives didn’t work as well for me.
There are a lot of extremely contrived incidences in this book, that are a little difficult to suspend disbelief over. I mean the whole initial incidence of the Tap-Out seems a little contrived, I mean why would the water only be switched off to this particular area? Couldn’t people just go to Northern California? I’ll admit, I’m not American, so I don’t know if the event described by the authors in this book could happen, but it seemed a bit of a stretch that an event of this magnitude would only affect one part of the state and that there would be no alternative water sources.
Many other contrived situations happen just to make it more difficult for the characters to acquire water. I mean I get it, it would be a terrible book if the characters just immediately found water and didn’t struggle at all, but some of the situations just felt kind of ridiculous. Like of course Alyssa’s brother would contaminate their only water source and two sips of water can cure severe dehydration? I mean I get some conveniences for the sake of plot, but there were a few too many here for my liking.
The writing was decent, like I said, I prefer a lot of Neal Shusterman’s other books, but there was nothing wrong with the writing here and for the first book I’ve read that was written by two authors, it definitely felt very cohesive.
It was nice to read a book where a sibling relationship was so central, I love reading about sibling relationships in books and it was really sweet how protective Alyssa was over her younger brother.
I had some issues with Kelton’s character in terms of toxic masculinity. At points in the story, he describes Alyssa as like “a deer to be hunted” and a particular revelation about him spying on her was pretty uncomfortable for me. There’s a few kind of iffy issues in that area, one of the snapshots involves young girls having to trade sexual favours for water and Alyssa subtly slut shaming one of them later in the book.
The small snapshots of what’s going on outside of the main characters were really cool, I liked seeing what was happening in the world outside of them, it meant that we got to see the wider scope of the crisis which was cool.
Some of the elements of the book hit kind of weirdly because of the pandemic, which is not the book’s fault, like all of the panic buying in Costco at the beginning with everyone stocking up on water, reminds me of how everyone was stocking up on toilet roll at the start of the pandemic.
I did get kind of frustrated about how stupid some of the characters could be, Alyssa taking the water to the neighbours IN A LABELLED BAG was particularly stupid, she basically put a target on Kelton’s family. There are other incidences that are equally stupid, but talking about them would be quite spoilery, so basically be prepared to get very annoyed with most of these characters at one point or another.
The ending really frustrated me, without spoiling anything, it’s incredibly deux ex machina and didn’t seem to really fit with the rest of the story. I’m all for stories offering hope in a crisis but it has to fit and it didn’t really fit here, so it kind of left me feeling a bit of a sour note at the end of the book which is not what you really want!
Overall, this book had a decent concept but there were quite a few flaws in its execution, from the many plot coincidences, to the flat characters and the too neat ending. I do love Neal Shusterman’s books, but I don’t think this was one of his best.
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of my latest audiobook read, Kingdom of Copper, sequel to The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty.