Paige is one of the first to succumb to a deadly wave of flu. She falls into an addled sleep, only to wake up six days later to an entirely different world. She’s malnourished and dehydrated, none of the utilities are working, and when she manages to explore the house, she discovers that the rest of her family are dead. And not just her family – there’s no one left on the street. From what she can tell, there’s no one left at all. Paige sets off to find answers, and to discover if she’s the only person left in this bizarre new world. When she meets Trey, she has at least one answer, but more questions arise. How has the entire world fallen to a plague so quickly, and how have some rare people survived?
Note: Do not read the GoodReads description if you dislike spoilers, as it contains hints about which direction this book goes.
Let me just start by saying that I love Rae Carson, and I haven’t been so caught up in a book like I did this one in quite some time. Most of my reading has been at night before bed, and I rarely get more than a chapter read at a time. However, I went to bed with this book one night and before I knew it, I was over 100 pages in and it was WAY past time to be sleeping. Carson’s writing and storytelling is excellent, and I was fully invested in this story almost from the beginning.
Then the book went off in an entirely unanticipated direction. It wasn’t a bad direction, just not what I was expecting. I can’t say more about this without giving spoilers – the spoilers that would be hinted at in the GR description – but I want to give an example from another series to illustrate my point. Imagine you were reading the Hunger Games, and in the middle of the uprise against the Capitol, you find out that actually the Capitol doesn’t exist, and it’s actually a portal to a time period several hundred years in the future, which would explain the weird technology they have. Suddenly, you’re in a time travel story instead of a post-apocalyptic one. Or imagine you’re reading Harry Potter, and after all this Harry vs Voldemort stuff, you find out that actually all this is happening in the mind of a person with psychosis, and Voldemort is actually an alley cat that they have to pass on the way home from school and that tends to jump out from behind trash cans and scratch them. Suddenly you’re dealing with a very different type of book. That’s what this book was like. It’s a plague novel, with hints of potential bio-weaponry and government conspiracy, and then BAM it’s not that book at all anymore.
There was a moment when I was startled and somewhat disappointed by the change. And then the change was so horrific and visceral and imaginative that my disappointment evaporated. As a reader, I felt utter despair for the few characters we meet in Any Sign of Life. I can’t fathom how they must’ve managed a much more pressing sense of despair. It made the book interesting, because it turned the traditional YA dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre on its head, reaching back to a more classic version. The ending was so powerful – triumphant in some ways, pointless in others, with no real conclusion, tons of unanswered questions, and yet no hint of potential sequel. I can only imagine how many readers will hate it. But on a higher-than-plot level, it was perfect. After all, the book is about a plague that wipes out most of humanity, and figuring out what “humanity” even means when you’ve dropped into the worst possible scenario. It shouldn’t have a neat, unambiguous, conclusive ending.
Around 2008-2010, I used to read a lot of dystopian novels (both traditional and modern versions). The YA market in particular was flooded with them. Now that we’re hitting the two year mark of a global pandemic, it might seem a bit odd to read, not just a post-apocalyptic novel, but a plague-driven one. I didn’t mind that, though, and in fact appreciated the throwback nods to our current pandemic (which ends roughly a decade before this book takes place) and how it was bungled in the US (“‘Our president at the time had already bungled a pandemic…and we were concerned that he would do everything in his power to save his family and billionaire friends – and no one else.'” Boom!). Some nice biting commentary to sweeten the read. Especially because some of the commentary contrasted with one of the main narrative questions – what does it mean to be human? When all else is lost, what is worth living for? What makes life “life”? Given that we all live in a world where more than 5 million folks have already been lost to a plague, these are questions that are worth considering. Just like this is a book worth reading, no matter how strange, unsettling, or close-to-home it may be.