The Time of the Reaper, Andrew Butcher

Andrew Butcher – The Time of the Reaper
Atom, 2007, 378 pp, £5.99, ISBN 978-1-904233-94-7

A good YA novel gets rid of the adults so that the kids can have their fun undisturbed. Andrew Butcher achieves that in spades by wiping out the entire global population of over-18s. A good YA novel can also be enjoyed equally by the target audience and by adults, and here he is less successful. This is aimed squarely at teen readers who aren’t that interested in ideas SF or good writing but who like a good adventure, and it won’t find much of a readership outside that group.

A mysterious plague with a 100% mortality rate affects only adults: flu-like symptoms at first, death within about 48 hours. As their world collapses around them, the book follows a group of teen personality types carefully selected for maximum mutual incompatibility. We follow the kids from the birthday party where the ominously capitalised Sickness is first heard of (and the plot almost dies, stillborn, of inertia), through to the collapse of civilisation as we know it and the first tentative hurrah of the survivors as they fight back against the forces of anarchy. There are chilling images that show this really is It. The group clusters around a short wave radio set as a frightened kid in Brooklyn Heights describes Manhattan burning. A hospital is surrounded by a traffic jam full of corpses, some of whom have been shot by the police and army who were trying to defend the place before the plague got them all. And then our hero turns and runs because he hears the far-off wails of newborn infants in the maternity unit, and he knows there simply isn’t anything he can do to help.

That’s the strengths. But …

If only the characters weren’t so perfect. They talk clearly and fluently, conveying exactly the right amount of information needed to avoid ambiguity, down to the use of clauses and subclauses if necessary. Even the uneducated yobs are fully articulate tributes to the state system, while the hero can look at books being burnt and think that there go the building blocks of civilisation. Quote. Viewpoints shift all over each page as the author tells us what is going on inside different heads, then suddenly drops in a physical description in lieu of a pronoun – instead of ‘him’ or ‘her’, the speaker may suddenly be described as ‘the brown haired boy’ for no reason except that apparently we needed reminding. No nuance goes knowingly underexpressed, no opportunity to shoehorn in some infodumping unused.

But these just annoy. What affronts is the ending. The plague is of alien manufacture, designed to soak up the opposition of planet Earth but leave a useful slave force. On the last page, the aliens come in to land. The kids have held it together through the deaths of their parents, the collapse of their world and a pretty good battle. It’s Lord of the Flies on a global scale and, by the skin of their teeth, the Ralphs have triumphed. Wouldn’t you want to read more? Survivors for the iPod generation? But no, all the preceding has been rendered moot because now we get a humdrum alien invasion, as if Butcher was a little ashamed of trying his hand at serious SF and wanted to win back the lowest common denominator readers. A great shame.

The target audience will go “wow!” and buy the sequel. Meanwhile, if any teenager comes up to you and asks for a good book on global plagues, point them at Earth Abides.