What would happen if the most important, fundamental element for human survival was toxic? In H2O by Virginia Bergin we learn the answer: nothing good.
Written by Virginia Bergin
Genre: Apocalypse, Dystopia, Young Adult, Science Fiction
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: October 2014
Paperback: 327 pages
.27 IS A NUMBER RUBY HATES.
It’s a number that marks the percentage of the population that survived. It’s a number that means she’s one of the “lucky” few still standing . And it’s a number that says her father is probably dead.
Against all odds, Ruby has survived the catastrophic onset of the killer rain. Two weeks after the radio started broadcasting the warning “It’s in the rain. It’s fatal, it’s contagious, and there’s no cure,” the drinkable water is running out. Ruby’s left with two options: persevere on her own, or embark on a treacherous journey across the country to find her father–If he’s even still alive.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in The Rain series
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print copy
I’ll start off this review by stating plainly that the description for this book isn’t that great. It’s completely misleading, for one thing, giving the expectation of a plague-immunity-survival story, when H2O is–refreshingly!–anything but. So I’ll kick off this review proper with my version of the description:
Ruby Morris–Ru to her friends–is an average British teenager. She doesn’t care much for school or exams, but life is going pretty well because she’s young, pretty, generally happy, and all of a sudden she’s making out with Caspar McCloud in a hot tub. (CASPAR MCCLOUD IN A HOT TUB!) For Ruby, this is the pinnacle of her hopes and dreams–the hot guy she’s had a crush on and flirted with all year is kissing her, while they are in their underwear, in a hot tub.
But that’s where the happy part of the story ends, and the messed-up part begins.
The parents/owners of the hot tub come home in a panic, dragging all of the teens out of the barn and into the kitchen, rambling on and on about the rain. And then it starts to rain.
There’s something deadly in the rain. Something that causes people to start bleeding profusely within seconds of contact. Something that turns them into writhing, pain-ridden creatures that claw at their faces before quick, inevitable death.
Ruby and her friends don’t believe it at first–but soon Ruby sees firsthand that the danger is very, very real. Soon, Ruby is utterly alone–her mother, stepfather, and half-brother are gone, victims of the bacterium that has invaded not only the rain, but every exposed water source. Fifteen-year-old Ruby faces a choice: to stay put in her small hometown and hope for the best while she gradually dies of thirst and her corpse is eaten by the neighborhood pets, or to strike out on her own for London in search of her father, braving the outside world and all of its dangers.
The debut novel and first in a series from Virginia Bergin, H2O is an apocalyptic novel that plays with an intriguing premise, familiar tropes, and is wrapped in an authentic first-person kind-of-epistolary narrative. And you know what? It works. It works, despite the fact that the science behind the killer rain premise is slightly shaky, and it works because of Ruby’s self-absorbed, traumatized narrative. H2O tells the familiar apocalypse story of the world falling apart, and the mass deaths of over 99% of the population, and the subsequent collapse of society–but it does so from a teenage perspective that sounds and reads as very different than so many of the other YA apocalypse/dystopia novels that flood the SFF market. And that, fellow apocalypse lovers, is why H2O kind of rocks.
Let’s start with the premise: many years ago, an extinction-event sized asteroid was on a collision path with Earth. Earthlings were able to detect and obliterate the asteroid, and the world was saved! Except, now, several years later, the after-effects of that asteroid-obliteration are starting. The cosmic dust from the asteroid has made its gradual and inevitable way to Earth, filtering through the atmosphere–and that’s where the fun begins. The dust isn’t just dust, you see–there’s a teeny tiny space bacterium that is hungry, and that makes its presence known to Earthlings when it starts to rain. Multiplying within minutes and killing within hours, this space bacterium soon infects any exposed water supply–and it kills humans with impunity. Now, the science behind this is questionable at best and subject to many questions like, why aren’t animals (or plants?) affected at all by the bacterium? How can a single drop of water in contact with the skin infect someone, but a misty/foggy day does not? These questions aren’t really answered to satisfaction in H2O (though I suspect that book 2 holds revelations about the “space” bacterium–my money is on government biochemical weapon gone amok, a la The Strain). But even taking into consideration these scientific gaps, the idea behind the story is so appealing, and I personally was able to suspend disbelief.
What would happen if humans were denied the one, most vital element to survival? Not only denied that element, but made so that humans cannot even come into contact with water? It’s pretty terrifying–at one point in the book, two characters remark separately that if it were a zombie apocalypse, they’d know exactly what to do. A water apocalypse? Now that’s interesting. The manner in which Ruby and other characters cope with the fundamental problem of water is fascinating (at least, it is in this reader’s opinion). The majority of the human body is composed of water and we rely on water for so many things, from basic hygiene to the necessity of replenishing the water within our water-rich bodies. The average human requires two liters of drinking water per day–so imagine a world where that water supply is not only dramatically limited, but the barest contact with moisture means death. Scary, right?
Now, imagine that you are fifteen-years-old, and utterly alone in a world that seems completely dead. Ruby Morris isn’t a star student, nor is she a quiet wallflower teen that spends her days reading SFF novels or comic books. She’s a young woman who likes hanging out with her friends, who enjoys parties, hot guys, and shopping–in other words, she’s a fifteen-year-old who is fully enmeshed in the adolescent world of high school. And there is nothing wrong with that. Ruby’s narrative, told in a retrospective first person journal (kinda) is utterly open, deeply personal, and resonates as completely genuine in my opinion. Yes, Ruby comes across as self-absorbed–after her family dies, Ruby’s next journal entry talks about how she, by candlelight at night tries to die her hair red and give herself a fake tan. Yes, at later points in the book when she’s raiding shopping malls and drugstores, Ruby picks up cosmetics and clothes (in addition to water and supplies) and writes about them at length. This, to me, is Ruby’s coping mechanism–her family is dead and she’s survived hugely traumatic experiences (raiding supermarkets during the apocalypse, as one might imagine, is no lighthearted affair).
I personally loved Ruby’s voice, her snappiness, her wittiness, her reliance on familiar things (makeup, clothes, memories of friends). Most of all, I love the fact that she sounds remarkably different than any other YA dystopian heroine–who often sound interchangeable because 1) their motivations are almost identical (save the world/family/friends from shitty government/world order/apocalypse); 2) they are almost uniformly Responsible and Prepared for the task of accomplishing point (1); 3) they are almost uniformly pretty without trying, and selfless because point (1) is all that matters; 4) they are almost always in a situation that involves a hot guy who helps them accomplish all things.
Ruby isn’t this type of heroine. She uses makeup, hair dye, and sparkly clothes to put on a mask and a front to the rest of the world. She might come off as vapid (I’ve read reviews that call her far worse things), and that’s a justifiable opinion–but to me, Ruby is so much deeper than this simple characterization. She is honest. Ruby spills all of her thoughts and feelings–as uncharitable and selfish as they may be–in this book through her narrative. She doesn’t give herself credit for helping out other animals who are trapped, or for helping people she meets on the road, always framing it in a way that frankly addresses her own failings and fears as well as how her actions sit with her own personal, selfish goals. To me, in a heroine, this is completely refreshing and I deeply, deeply appreciated it.
H2O might not be as emotionally resonant as Life as We Knew It or In The After–but so far as apocalypse novels go, H2O is near the top end of the spectrum. I’m very much looking forward to reading The Storm, as soon as possible.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
There’s really no point going on about how things used to be. For one, I can’t stand to think about it — even though I do, a lot, and it makes me want to throw up with sadness. For two, it kind of doesn’t matter, does it? It’s over. And for three, I’m not writing this because of how things used to be — I’m writing this because of what happened. So I’ll start right there. This is what happened:
I was sitting in a hot tub in my underwear kissing Caspar McCloud.
Ha! That also sounds like a great beginning, maybe from some kind of kiss-fest romance, or maybe Caspar would turn out to be a sexy vampire. But the truth is — and this is the one thing I will do, for sure. I will try to tell the truth, even if it hurts me to say it, even if it shocks you to hear it (and I doubt it will, because if you’re reading this you’ve probably had about a gazillion shocks already) — the truth is, it wouldn’t be right to pretend that kissing in a hot tub was the kind of thing I usually did on a Saturday night, because it wasn’t.
It soooooooooooooooooooooo wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong: I’d kissed boys before (two); I’d been to parties before (like, since I was five years old or something). I’d even sat in that hot tub in my underwear before (with Lee — that’s Lee as in Leonie, my best friend). But that night, that party … it was the best, the most amazing — scarily amazing — time I had ever had in my life up until that point. (Not difficult.)
That night — that one, glorious, hot Saturday night — I was becoming a new me, one who was going to have a boyfriend named Caspar and do stuff like kiss in hot tubs at wild parties all the time. Yes, from the nagging jaws of the THEY, I was about to snatch complete, amazing greatness and total brilliance. And a boyfriend.
What can I say? It happened. It really happened! Zak, who lived in this massively cool, rambling old farmhouse, and whose parents were so laid-back you could basically do whatever you liked, pulled the speakers outside the barn where we — that’s me and all my lovely friends (exception to be named shortly) — had been hanging out drinking LETHAL cider punch, and a bunch of us stripped down — to our underwear — and climbed into their hot tub.
We sort of danced where we sat, doing so-slick-yeah-check-it mini arm moves. It was totally hilarious, but it was also totally cramped … until people started getting out again, moaning that the hot tub was too hot.
It was like some dreadful slow-motion countdown. With every person that got out, the water in that tub got stiller and stiller. I kept wishing it was one of those Jacuzzi tubs with bubbles, but it wasn’t; unless you kept trailing your hands around on the surface, you could see everything. So I sat there, casually fanning my hands around … because across that pool of steaming water sat Caspar Swoon McCloud.
And in between us sat Saskia, who wasn’t fanning her hands about at all.
I do want to say that, even before that night, I wasn’t really sure how much I actually liked Saskia. Not that I really knew her; she’d just started hanging out with us lately — even more lately than Caspar, who’d transferred to our school from the artsy hippie school, and was cool and wild and was in a band, and I’d once told Simon and my mom I was babysitting with Lee so I could go see Caspar’s band play at a bar. And it was there, while Caspar was onstage at The George, doing his guitar thing, that he’d looked up and looked at me, and I’d looked at him and —
KA-CASPAR-BOOM! (PART ONE)
I realized I was in love with Caspar McCloud.
And this is too much information, isn’t it? This is exactly what I said I wouldn’t do, which is go on about how things were. I can’t stand it. I’ll shut up.
Rating: 7 – Very Good