Title: Quaratine: The Loners
Series: Quarantine #1
Author: Lex Thomas (pen name for Lex Hrabe and Thomas Voorhies)
Published: 10 July 2012
Publisher: Egmont USA
Genre: YA, science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
On the first day of school at McKinley High an explosion destroys the East Wing. All the adults suddenly vomit up their lungs and die. Soldiers surround the school and gun down any student who tries to escape. They seal off the building, trapping everyone inside. Over a month later it’s explained that the students are all infected with a virus that thrives only in the bodies of pubescent teenagers, making them instantly fatal to any child or adult they approach. Students will only be allowed to leave the school once they’ve passed through puberty and the virus leaves their bodies, in which case they have to get out quickly to avoid a swift and horrible death.
By this point the students have already divided into gangs based on American-style social cliques – Varsity (jocks), Pretty Ones, Geeks, Sluts, Nerds, Freaks and Skaters. Gangs protect their members and trade services and supplies. They also have a better chance of getting supplies when the students fight over the food drop that is delivered every two weeks. Life at McKinley is brutal, and it’s worse if you don’t have a gang, like David Thorpe and his younger brother Will. David used to be a popular jock but over the past few months he’s withdrawn from his social circle. He’s also made an enemy out of Sam Howard, the vengeful, violent leader of Varsity. David beat Sam up for stealing his girlfriend Hilary, so now Sam hates him. No gang is willing to protect David against the power of Varsity, so for over a year he concentrates on keeping his head down and doing what he must so that he and his brother can survive. But chaos erupts when David saves a beautiful girl from being raped, and accidently kills the Varsity member who attacks her.
Varsity will kill David if they get their hands on him, and to make things worse, Will is spiralling out of control. He’s in love with Lucy, the girl David rescued, but now Lucy is attracted to David instead, who likes her but is concerned about his brother’s feelings. Obsessed with trying prove himself, Will becomes increasingly deluded and reckless while David just tries his best to keep them alive.
I got off to a very bad start with this. The first few chapters rush by in a hurried attempt to set up the plot. Imagine highlighting the most significant scenes in a novel and taking out everything in between. One moment David is talking to a teacher, then there’s an explosion, the teacher dies, kids try to escape but are trapped in the school by soldiers. All this in two or three pages. In the next chapter it’s suddenly two weeks later, then a month, the gangs form, and they get told about the virus. The next chapter begins “One year later”. It’s like the authors (Lex Thomas is a pen name for Lex Hrabe and Thomas Voorhies) were so eager to get to the main story that they wanted to get all the preceding stuff out of the way as fast as fucking possible. I love a pacey plot, but this is ridiculous.
Once the main story (a love triangle, fighting brothers, Sam wanting to murder David) gets going, the novel slows down to a more reasonable pace, but it still lacks substance. The authors just don’t give us enough information. When the virus spread and the adults died, all the students’ hair fell out. When it grows back it’s white. Why? And why do none of the students wonder about this? Frankly, I think it’s just a contrivance that the authors used so that the gangs could dye their hair different colours using stuff like powdered cooldrink and ash.
I can accept that the military tells the students very little about the virus (although this looks like author laziness too), but why do they only communicate with them once? And only after a month? If they can provide food and other supplies, they can communicate with them, try to keep them organised and control all the violence. But they don’t. Why does no one mention what happened to the students’ families? Don’t the families want to communicate? And why the hell don’t any of the students wonder if they families are ok? David and Will conclude that their father must be ok because he was out of town when the virus spread, and that’s the last we hear on the subject.
Why don’t any of the gangs band together to take down Varsity, who takes most of the food? The gangs are so hostile to each other that inter-gang friendships or relationships are unthinkable. I’m quite willing to believe that there’d be a lot of violence in this situation, but would a bunch of teenagers really be this small-minded? Are they really so easily divided by stupid social categories? And given that the gangs take almost all the food, how do all the loners survive? Later in the novel the loners actually form a gang of almost a hundred students – where the fuck were they all hiding and how did they feed themselves?
I have a lot of questions about the gangs themselves too. How are the Freaks defined? There’s nothing particularly weird about them except that they dye their hair blue with toilet cleaner. What makes the Geeks geeky? They’re the art and drama students who put on plays, host a carnival, and are led by a flamboyantly gay boy. They’re more like hipsters. Varsity lives in the gym with the Pretty Ones and they all use the pool – how do they fill it and keep it clean? The Pretty Ones all wear white clothes, which is just ludicrous in that filthy environment. They also waste their time making pointless crap to sell, like lipstick and wigs. WHY?! It’s not like they need stuff to trade anyway – they survive by prostituting themselves to the Varsity boys. The Sluts on the other hand, aren’t even defined by promiscuity; they’re just a strong all-girl group. There are students having sex all the time, and although they apparently get condoms in the food drop, I can’t believe that no one would fall pregnant.
Seriously, the authors barely even tried to make this work. Last year I read Variant by Robison Wells, another novel about teenagers trapped in a school with no real adult supervision and a society made up of gangs. That was a different situation, as the kids lived organised lives and didn’t have to fight to survive or worry about being murdered, but they had no idea why they were imprisoned. However, I couldn’t help but compare Quarantine with Variant because the latter novel was meticulously detailed, explaining exactly how and why the school functioned the way it did, what the students thought of it, and how they coped. I wasn’t plagued by a long list of how’s and why’s because the author had obviously thought about them himself and made the effort to provide answers. As a result, Variant was way more interesting than this and the world-building did a lot to get me fully invested in the story. Lex Thomas seems to treat things like world-building as random crap that’s somehow getting in their way so it gets dealt with dismissively. There’s no saving the novel from this.
The story is actually ok but often frustrating. Will has epilepsy, and feels insecure after having a seizure on the quad and wetting his pants (notably, Will only has seizures when it suits the plot). He becomes obsessed with showing off and never helps David do laundry – a service that they trade for supplies. Will becomes a total asshole after David saves Lucy, and their love triangle becomes a key aspect of the plot. Will’s convinced his brother is some kind of fraud who is stealing his girl, so he frequently undermines him, or does something stupid and dangerous to impress Lucy. Meanwhile poor David shows him endless love and tolerance, and continues to provide for him. Lucy is stupidly manipulative, leading Will on when she wants David and getting close to both as if she has no idea what effect her body and beauty has on them. It makes you want to scream sometimes.
Sam’s vendetta against David is fairly compelling, if only because I had a grim determination to see what would happen. Can David turn The Loners into a strong gang? Will David survive long enough to ‘graduate’ and leave the school? Will Varsity tire of Sam’s murderous tendencies and turn on him? Sam is a very violent, vindictive person, the kind of bland villain who is so utterly horrible he doesn’t seem like a real person. Coupled with the whole gang arrangement, this makes for a great deal of brutality. There are gruesome murders, attempted murders, beatings, and terrible accidents. The Pretty Ones essentially trade in sex, with their leader, Hilary, arranging girlfriends for the Varsity boys. Lucy’s attempted rape is the only one on the page, but the implication is that rape must be fairly common; the authors just don’t address it. Varsity actually brews the own alcohol, and the guy who tried to rape Lucy was drunk at the time.
I don’t mind that this is sordid and bloody. It makes sense in the circumstances. The problem is that the circumstances are so implausible, the world-building so very shoddy. Quarantine: The Loners fails in so many ways and the story, while decent, isn’t nearly good enough to compensate. It actually ends on a cliffhanger that sets us up for a dystopian sequel, but no thanks, I’m done with this.
Still curious? Buy Quarantine: The Loners at The Book Depository.