more than“Here is the boy, drowning.”

I was first introduced to Patrick Ness at the end of 2013 when the first of his Chaos Walking trilogy was thrust into my hands by a friend. After gulping the series down and loving every page of it, it wasn’t long before I was discussing the books with another friend and she suggested this one. I bought it last year and have only just got around to reading it (because I do that a lot). Always happy to return to an author I enjoyed, I expected to be blown away once more. Luckily, I was.

This is the story of teenager Seth Wearing and what happens after he dies. He wakes up wrapped in bandages on the front path of the house he grew up in, but hasn’t lived in for eight years not since … not since something terrible happened. The world is entirely deserted, filthy and with weeds growing out of every surface. He cannot explain how he has come to be here, given that this house is in England and was living in America, so comes to assume that this is his own personal hell. After all, the weather is very strange and only hell would send you back to the location where your worst memory took place.

Seth explores the old town, finding supplies in the remains of the shops and houses, but finding absolutely no other people. Every time he falls asleep he is plagued by dreams – bad dreams of what happened before he died, of how he led to his brother being mentally disturbed; how he fell in love with his best fiend Gudmund, but it was all taken away from him when his classmates found out. For days he believes he is all alone until he sees a van moving – the first sign of human activity since he arrived there. But when he tries to call out to the van for help, he finds himself captured by two misfits; angry, strong Regine, and tiny, enthusiastic Tomasz who insist that they are going to save his life. Seth has to work out exactly where he is and what’s going on, which is complicated when the last thing you remember before arriving in a desolate wasteland is breaking your skull against a rock.

Like the Chaos Walking series, Ness is very good at pacing. For the first hundred or so pages, there are no characters except Seth (not counting his flashbacks and dreams) but at no point does this seem a struggle. Ness is a master at cranking up the tension and the book is genuinely terrifying in parts, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. The twists keep on coming and layer after layer of secrets are revealed with such speed and timing that the book soon runs out on itself and you find yourself on the final page with a cliffhanger that will probably frustrate you forevermore. I think it will me.

Although Seth is a fairly bland character – while not a typical boy-genius YA character, he’s pretty inoffensive with nothing to mark him out as special – the small cast around him more than makes up for it. Tomasz is unerringly cheery, even in this wasteland, and his English is flawed but sweet. He’s young but has the eyes and emotions of someone much older, someone who has had no choice in the matter of growing up. Regine is another strong, female character known well in the genre, not taking any shit from the boys but still maintaining a protective, caring side when it needs to be shown. Gudmund appears a nice guy, but is perhaps anything but, which is almost a shame.

This is the sort of book that makes hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you can never really explain why. There’s a lot of ambiguity, particularly as to whether this is all happening in Seth’s mind or if it’s real, and even when things do get explained, you can’t always tell if that makes the situations less creepy or more so.

Frankly, this book just needs to be read, especially if you enjoyed Patrick Ness’s other books, but also if you just like something a bit smart, a bit weird, a bit creepy, and a bit fantastic.