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Book Review: Swarm by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti

Book Review: Swarm by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti

While first novel Zeroes does everything it needs to in order to establish a new concept, a new set of characters and a new series, Swarm is able to cast off the dreary necessities of exposition and launch straight into the kind of action-packed, high stakes storyline that the original book failed to get stuck into until a bit too late.

After taking on drug dealers and bank robbers, the six superpowered teens are back in Swarm with a threat that makes the plot of Zeroes look like child’s play, and as Scam, Flicker, Crash, Anonymous, Mob and Bellwether use their illegal nightclub to begin to test the full extent of their varied abilities, the arrival of two strangers with stronger powers turn everything the gang knows upside down. And, worse, there’s a bigger, more dangerous threat right behind them.

Compared to Zeroes, authors Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti have taken a much darker turn here, and it’s a decision that is both a very welcome one, and makes for a much more exciting read. At the beginning of Swarm, the Zeroes are settled in their group of six – the elusive magic number that makes up “the Curve” and allows many of their powers to be amplified – but if the arrival of strangers Davey and Ren cause fear and confusion, the arrival of Swarm is pure, unadulterated chaos, bringing with it destruction, horror and insecurity.

“Around her, the faces of the swarmed became slack, their arms loose and twitching. Their teeth chattered. She could feel Swarm’s power coiling through them all, erasing them, scouring every bit of individuality from them.”

It’s a bold decision to take this rag tag group of 16-year-olds down a darker road, but ultimately it’s one that pays off, turning every page of this book into a quick fire run through of action and events that wisely chooses to focus on the what is happening, and draws attention away from the explanation (or the lack thereof) as to why it’s happening at all. If you take a step back from it all, what starts off as an intriguing premise actually has quite a flawed portrayal: why this certain group of people has these powers is put down to maybe being because they were all born in 2000, and what they can actually do with their power grows and shifts and stops and reverses seemingly at the drop of a hat.

But it’s the cast of Zeroes themselves that really bring this novel to life, and what they lack in character motivation, they more than make up for in the strength of their relationships. Swarm is really built on the strength of this, and Kelsie’s (code name Mob) role in proceedings is a particularly fascinating example. Everything from finding her place among the other Zeroes and trying to work out her new and uncertain relationship with Chizara (Crash) to her innate connection to Swarm and what it means for her own sense of self means that Kelsie is an unpredictable whirlwind of thoughts, emotions and actions all through this novel, and that means you can pretty much guarantee her chapters will never be boring.

Thibault, too, is intriguing primarily for his power, which sees him unable to form connections with people, and here we see him return to a family who struggle to remember him, leading to a couple of difficult decisions all round. Reading as he tries again and again to reform lost connections and then struggle with his own self-worth is heartbreaking, but it does make his relationship with Flicker all the more gratifying to see unfold and grow over the novel.

The Zeroes series has been pitched as X-Men meets Heroes, but if you take this novel too seriously as a superhero action tale, you’ll likely be left a little disappointed. If you allow yourself to give into the bizarre of it all, however, what you’ll get is an entertaining read with a couple of plot curveballs and some really fascinating characters.


Swarm was published by Simon & Schuster Children’s UK on 27 September 2016

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