Review by: Mark Palm
I have said more than once that if I had more time I would write less. When I am not sure, I babble. As I was approaching the end of Alive by Scott Sigler I started to think that I was in trouble. This novel is a deceptive and clever take on a familiar concept, with some unique twists, and I was worrying how was I going to wrap up the whole package in a concise review. Of particular difficulty was that Ms. Sigler dispenses the information that the reader needs with such economy and sensitivity that I was beginning to feel that I was being backed into an uncomfortable corner; until I read the afterword, in which Mr. Sigler, to my delight, asked the reviewer not to reveal too many spoilers. With pleasure, sir.
Alive opens with a girl waking up chained in a coffin. She doesn’t know her name, where she is, or why she is there. She knows that she is twelve years old, it is her birthday, and she is terrified. She is also determined, which, once she breaks out of the casket, becomes one of her most consistent characteristics. Em, as she comes to be called, finds other caskets, full of other people, and wakes the ones that are still alive. They are all dressed like her, all believing that that are twelve; but like Em, they are physically young adults. Along with their clothes each has a circle on their forehead; however there are different designs of circles, which seem to correspond with some of the characteristics of their personality. As the book goes on the designs seem more and more important, as they seem to define the characters expectations, skills, and the way they see the world.
First Em must bring this disparate group together, and lead them through a perilous landscape full of skeletons and corpses, and other more dangerous things, to find the necessities for survival, and if they are lucky some answers to the predicament in which they find themselves. Although this is a YA novel the trip is harrowing enough to be satisfying. The world in which they find themselves is strange and often inexplicable, but holds just enough things which the characters find familiar to keep both them and me not quite comfortable. It’s a tricky act, and Mr.Sigler hits just the right balance of the known and the unknown.
The characters are solid, and despite their labels, mostly multi-faceted; but this book is Em’s and she steals the show. We see all of the action through her first-person narration, and she is big enough to carry the load. I found myself wondering if Em just might be the next iconic YA heroine to capture the literary world.
I wrote earlier that Mr. Sigler’s prose was precise and sensitive; what I meant was that language is critical to this book. The characters memories, what they know and don’t know seems to be connected to the way they name things, and perceive the world and their roles in it. The action is explosive and unforgiving, and the tension almost unbearable. Mr. Sigel really lets you know how it would feel to be emotionally twelve years old and wandering through an apocalyptic landscape with no idea what may be waiting behind the next corner. As he peels away the layers of the mystery the revelations are not stunningly original, but they are solid and extrapolated with care and conviction. What’s more pleasing, since this is the first book in a trilogy, is that enough questions are answered to give a solid sense of completion, but enough are left hanging to make sure that I will be eagerly looking forward to the next installment.