Quite the follow-up

by Catherine Woulfe / 12 March, 2015
No cheesy love triangles to see here, just characters you can really get behind.
Havoc bookChristchurch academic Jane Higgins has followed up her terrific dystopian debut The Bridge with an even better sequel. Havoc is urgent, moving and believable. It feels like the story that was waiting to be told all along, with The Bridge just a lengthy, unusually scintillating set-up.

Remarkable, given how good that first book really was – and the fact that Havoc was entirely unplanned. No slick, prepared-in-advance young adult (YA) trilogy, this: after awarding The Bridge its coveted Text Prize in 2010, Text Publishing pushed Higgins for a sequel. She said no. Then she started noodling around in the loose ends, spent mornings “writing and writing and writing”, and here we are. Sometimes publishers know what they’re on about.

Inevitably, the first book drew comparisons with those other stories of teens at war: Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games and John Marsden’s brilliant Tomorrow series (well, the first four books were brilliant). Part of their draw, though, is that they’re so clear and familiar in the telling. Marsden’s band of teenagers go guerilla when their rural Aussie hometown is invaded. Collins has her heroine play a brutally simple game.

Higgins gives herself – and her readers – a harder job. A bigger cast, for starters, with odd names and objectives that change as the story unfolds. The books are set in the wake of a climate change-related war, in a fictional city riven with complex factions and forces (including the unfortunately acronymised Internal Security and Intelligence Services). As it’s the tensions between these that drive the narrative, this is not a story that rewards the sporadic or distracted reader.

Nor will it tick the boxes for those accustomed to a serving of cheesy love triangle with their YA. There’s a gentle romance here, but it’s a real and uncertain one, based on friendship and respect. And there are only two people involved.

Those two, Nik and Lanya, are what really lift Havoc above the rest – and into the fine company of The Hunger Games and Tomorrow. Like Katniss and Ellie in those books, Nik’s a narrator to believe in. He’s complex and conflicted; he spends a lot of time scared and tired and bored; he’s funny and far from perfect. It’s refreshing to read a male lead with that sort of depth. But as Higgins has said, Nik’s no hero. For that he has Lanya: a crusading firebrand of a girl who Nik would follow anywhere.

Readers would, too. Now there’s an idea for a sequel.

HAVOC, by Jane Higgins (Text Publishing, $26).

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