Imagine there’s a big, shiny red button in front of you. If you press the button, you will save the world. If you don’t, the world will end, and everyone and everything you’ve ever known will cease to exist.
So? Would you push the button?
The Story: Henry Denton was dealt a rough hand in the game of life. His grandmother is suffering from worsening Alzheimer’s, his big brother is dropping out of college because his girlfriend unexpectedly got pregnant, he is viciously bullied at school, and his boyfriend committed suicide (for which he blames himself). Oh, and he is regularly abducted by aliens. When the aliens show him that the world will end on January 29, 2016, they give him the choice to save or end the world with the push of a button. Henry doesn’t even have to think about it… this is his chance to end the hell his life has become.
The Low Down: First of all, if you’re not reading books by Shaun David Hutchinson, you should be. I fell in love with his sarcastic, crass, irreverent writing several years ago when I read The Deathday Letter and it’s still one of my favorites to this day.
Now then, back to Henry. Poor Henry. The hits just keep coming for this kid and I just wanted to hug him after every page. There are a lot of discussion-worthy elements that Henry deals with in Ants: loss/grieving, guilt, suicide, friendships and relationships, unplanned pregnancy, mental illness, and bullying. Despite the alien thing, the abductions are not the focal point of the book. They’re the reason Henry is forced to make this choice and he talks about them a bit, but it’s not an extraterrestrial sci-fi story.
There are several scenes in which Henry is brutally bullied by his classmates. He is repeatedly mocked and made fun of, attacked and humiliated in a gym shower, and nearly raped. They’re not explicitly graphic, but some individuals might find the descriptions upsetting. Just want to throw that out there for anyone who may be affected by these scenes.
The characters are what make this story come alive. They’re all well developed and each is complex in their own way. Some you hate, some you love. They experience triumphs and heartbreak. Some you root for, and others you want to throw into a volcano. The way Hutchinson progresses the relationships between characters is magical and he fully captures how complicated family dynamics, friendships, and romantic relationships can be.
Henry’s character is a true, egocentric teenager to his core. We certainly can recognize this in our own teen selves (I’m sure there are several obnoxious “it’s all about ME” teen years that my parents would love to scrub from their brains). About halfway through Ants, Henry’s grief over losing his boyfriend felt whiny and began to irritate me. I found myself yelling, “JESUS HENRY NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT YOU OR YOUR DEAD BOYFRIEND.”
Then, after I told myself that I was being an insensitive jerk about this poor kid’s loss, it dawned on me that Hutchinson very accurately depicted what loss feels like, especially to a teenager. Grief is all consuming, especially when you lose someone to suicide, and even more so when you feel responsible for it. Everything in Henry’s world was just a constant, painful reminder that the person he loved was gone forever. And THAT, my friends, is what makes Hutchinson’s writing so freakin’ brilliant.
I know I’m making this book sound uber-depressing, but it’s really not. It’s an honest look at one teenager’s exceptionally rough life. Hutchinson writes like a teenager… self centered and hilariously crass at times. There’s enough sarcasm, wit, and laughable one-liners to balance out the heavier elements of the story, and chapters are interspersed with possible ways in which the world could end on January 29, 2016 (giant cockroaches consuming the world was my favorite). And most importantly, it gives a strong message of hope.
Bottom Line: Henry’s hard life is tough to read about, but ultimately it’s a great story to show that no matter how bad things are, the world just might be worth saving.
OFFICIAL RATING: 9/10
P.S. Jocelyn at Novels and Necklaces posted a great review for Ants. Check it out for more insight!