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There's something tremendously appealing about contemplating the apocalypse. In addition to generous doses of horror, stories about the end of civilization as we know it provide the ultimate form of consolation: no matter how bad your day was, it doesn't compare to how you'd feel if the rest of the human race were wiped out during your coffee break.

There are more sensible reasons, of course, to find apocalyptic and postapocalyptic tales appealing: at the very least, these narratives promise a story of survival (or nonsurvival) with incredibly high stakes. Moreover, in their depiction of ultimate tragedy, apocalyptic narratives have the potential to engage in sophisticated and deeply moving analyses of humanity's responses to trauma. At one end of the entertainment spectrum, we have novels like Cormac McCarthy's The Road to remind us that the apocalypse can provide a powerful backdrop for explorations of the human condition. At the other end, we have movies like The Road Warrior to remind us that when pretension fails we can still have bad fashion and desperate car chases. Fictional apocalypses may come in many forms, but they are, by definition, rarely boring. That's one of the reasons Andrew Butcher's The Time of the Reaper is such a disappointment, particularly given the rich tradition of YA apocalyptic science fiction that precedes it.

Apocalyptic and postapocalyptic settings have long held particular appeal for YA authors. There's nothing like a good plague or nuclear holocaust to set teenage characters adrift in a world without rules. For younger audiences, apocalyptic fiction provides a short and dramatic version of the journey into adulthood: one minute a protagonist is safe within the confines of a stable home, and the next he or she is thrust into a world in which one must learn the skills of a self-sufficient adult in order to survive. YA apocalypse fiction thus tends to gravitate towards disasters that leave adolescents on their own: an all-consuming nuclear holocaust in Robert C. O'Brien's Z for Zachariah, for example, or the adult-devouring plague that leaves children to rule themselves in O. T. Nelson's The Girl Who Owned a City.

The Time of the Reaper follows in the time-honored tradition of YA apocalyptic fiction by having the adult population of the world wiped out by a mysterious illness. This leaves stalwart teenagers like Travis—a heroic type still grieving for his dead father—to fend for themselves and gradually start to rebuild human society. The main story line takes a while to get started, but once the adults have been wiped out, Travis manages to gather a motley pack of Breakfast Club-style stock characters. The newly independent teenagers then move through a series of ill-construed misadventures to a place where they might find relative safety. The novel ends with a twist that might—had this been a better book—make for an intriguing setup for the inevitable sequel.

But sadly The Time of the Reaper is not a good book. It is not even a good book by the sometimes pulpy standards of the apocalypse genre: the novel drags out its scenario, bogging down in badly written teen angst for roughly half the book before the plague truly hits home. My credulity was strained by the dense behavior displayed by Butcher's characters. Despite the fact that a deadly plague seems to be wiping out the world's population, adults make little or no effort to quarantine themselves, and the British government's clever strategy for dealing with a supposedly contagious virus is to trick its citizens into crowding into public places where they can be fed placebos.

And then there's the writing itself. Butcher's characters are thin stereotypes, and the conflicts he envisions often seem laughable. (At least one crotchety Neighborhood Watcher survives to make war on the "hooligans" of the next era.)

Overall, Butcher comes across as an author who is far more comfortable writing for adults than for teenagers. He is at his most convincing in the short sections written from adult perspectives. When he switches over to his protagonist's narrative, the writing becomes awkward and stilted. Butcher's adolescents speak in unconvincing approximations of teenage slang but shift into more sophisticated language when exposition is needed. People do change speech patterns within conversations, but rarely with the uniformity that Butcher's characters display. The novel's seesawing speech patterns hint at another, still greater problem: despite its adolescent empowerment, Butcher's story displays traces of condescension towards teenagers.

"Have you studied Lord of the Flies in your English lessons?" Travis's English teacher asks forebodingly. "Then you know what can happen when adult authority is removed, when young people are left to fend for themselves" (p. 119). Actually, William Golding's Lord of the Flies is about the barbarity of humanity in general (the protagonists of that novel are, after all, stranded on an island because of a war waged by adults). But in this quote and elsewhere, Butcher seems to be encouraging the reader to see violence and irrationality as primarily the problems of youth. As Travis's English teacher all but declares, it's the removal of "adult authority," not human nature itself, that causes problems. This point is driven home in The Time of the Reaper by the initial response of teenagers to the unfolding disaster. Rather than band together to form a society and try to survive (like, say, the children in Lord of the Flies), Butcher's mob instead decides to burn their school down. Survival instincts are not, apparently, teenagers' strong suits.

To be fair, Butcher's protagonists fall on the more sensible end of the adolescent spectrum. Travis even displays a capacity for independent thought, being one of the few people who notice that the "Sickness" selectively strikes adults. But in terms of their actions and plans, Butcher's heroes remain governed by the advice of adults. They don't display much self-determination in the first part of the novel, and while they begin to deal more independently with their problems in a post-Sickness world, they still show surprisingly little autonomy. For a novel that is, in part, a fantasy of teenage empowerment, this is a strange trajectory. The next novel in the series will no doubt make its protagonists more active, but in the meantime, adolescent readers will find more to admire in the highly competent guerrilla fighters of John Marsden's Tomorrow Series, for example, than in Butcher's heroes.

While this novel may succeed in attracting an audience of younger readers, there is not much here to recommend to adults. In all honesty, there isn't much to recommend to teenagers either. There are better-written, more interesting novels out there for the YA market. It's a pity: the world could certainly use a good new teenage apocalypse novel. The Time of the Reaper, sadly, is not one.

Siobhan Carroll is a doctoral student at Indiana University. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in magazines such as On Spec, Room of One's Own, and Son and Foe.



Siobhan Carroll is a doctoral student at Indiana University. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in magazines like On Spec, Room of One's Own, and Son and Foe. To contact Siobhan, email her at zzashiver@hotmail.com.
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