Books are often written in response to a resounding “What if?” Writers, especially in speculative fiction, imagine changes and tell stories about those possibilities. What if teenagers suddenly had powers that could help the world? What if teenagers suddenly had the power to destroy it? Robison Wells answers this question with his novel BLACKOUT. Wells utilizes a power of his own, he utilizes his characters venturing from the known to the unknown to invoke the same emotions and experiences that unite to form the teenage experience.
Aubrey taps into every high school girl’s psyche. Her ability is invisibility: “she knew it wasn’t as plain as just disappearing. Instead, people simply didn’t notice her.” (18) From the beginning, she invoked the feeling from my own high school years. That is the power of young adult literature. It reminds us of the times when we were that young, that vulnerable, that invincible. The appeal goes beyond the X-Men adjacent powers and the thickness of the plot. I loved this book because it could have been me, had I caught the virus. I could have been Aubrey as she grew in self-confidence and awareness, as she fell in love. Combining oncoming adulthood with the imposition of superpowers was a really fun way to make truth fantastic.
Jack too, encapsulated the teenage experience. His yearning for love and surprise in his own self-discovery felt incredibly real. Laura was that awful, moody teenager that we all know and don’t really love. Pairing this characters like Alec and Dan were harder to identify with because their motives were so unclear. Since there is an upcoming sequel, I won’t consider this lack of depth a failing, but rather a cliffhanger to lead the reader into the next book.
The pacing in the novel is faster than an adult novel. It had a great deal of action and intrigue as the mysteries surrounding the terrorist attacks and the virus unfolded. While there were brief moments of reprieve, the novel moved along with new information, new betrayals, and new action without missing a beat. It maintained tension in scenes of micro-tension, while carrying the novel as a whole. Each chapter had a breathtaking moment. And unlike some thrillers, it didn’t leave the reader winded.
Wells juggled multiple viewpoints. He revealed who the terrorists were from the beginning, which was served to amp up the tension as they befriended the other protagonists and plotted their next strike. He laces the novels with snippets from “SusieMusie” which he doesn’t explain until the end. This worked really well. The inevitable parts of the story—the main characters making their love connection, the terrorists betrayal—weren’t annoyingly obvious because there were other questions that drove the story.
This story had a huge impact on me. This wasn’t because of the story itself, but because the way it made me look at my own novel. I’ve been waffling between whether Beads of Glass is young adult, new adult, or just plain adult. It seems obvious now, but for the last six months or so since I started writing it, I’ve felt like I straddled a line. BLACKOUT made me fully aware that I’m writing young adult. BLACKOUT is about characters discovering who they are Vesper’s story, at its core, is the story of a girl finding out the pedestals she held her father on were formed on falsehood and that she’s not who she thinks she is. I’m writing (or trying to) with a similar pace and movement, while trying to reveal certain things slowly while waiting for the bigger reveal at the end. The thing is, I love YA. I read it for breakfast. But for some reason I felt like I wanted to be different in my novel. I don’t need to. Young adult novels are fantastic, and while they may not juggle the intense philosophical themes as some adult novels, they still have the power to draw in a reader and make them feel.
BLACKOUT worked because it helped me discover greater truths about myself. That’s the goal of any writer, I believe, to give the reader an experience that changes them in some small way. Robison Wells did this for me, with great powers, pace, and characters.