Are you tired of dystopian societies that categorize people by region or ability? Sick of the zombie epidemic? Still have no hope in a happy ending for society and want your fiction to reflect that? Welcome to the next wave of YA—natural apocalypses. I’m talking about Mother Nature saying “fuck this” and destroying everything in various ways, and, of course, how humans then deal with that. This new genre takes the classic man vs. nature plotline and multiplies it by a million. Virginia Bergin’s H2O takes this idea and—like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds—makes an everyday thing into a terrifying omen of doom.
H2O is your classic pre/post-apocalyptic story and can be envisioned quite easily as a film in the horror or suspense genre. As such, it does follow a lot of those tropes, but does so in a way that doesn’t seem too tired or overdone. H2O is the story of Ruby, a girl who’s trying to make her way in a world with killer rain. That’s right, rain—the peaceful, calming ambiance that sustains life on the planet in many ways. As with most horror stories with teen protagonists, Ruby is at a party when everything goes down. One second she’s making out with Caspar in the hot tub and the next she’s watching his face melt off after about ten seconds of contact with the rain.
Ruby escapes the party, avoids the rain, and makes it home. She’s put in quarantine while her stepfather, Simon, determines whether she’s been infected by whatever is in the rain. It’s Simon who comes up with some preliminary rules to keep them alive and safe long before the government ever does. Of course, that doesn’t stop the world from going to hell in a handbasket and doesn’t help Ruby figure out what to do when she ends up on her own.
The plot, while stereotypical for apocalypse type stories, is refreshing because of Ruby’s voice and attitude. Ruby is your average teenager, not some Katniss Everdeen type of survivalist. Her priorities are make-up, clean drinking water, looking fashionable, and saving cute animals. While many other readers found this laissez-faire attitude annoying, I thought it was nice to have a real teenage protagonist who isn’t prepared at all and is self-centered and doesn’t really care about other people beyond some minimalist connection. Yes, sometimes Ruby goes a little far and I had one of those horror movie moments where I wanted to yell, “Don’t go in there!” or “You’re being stupid!” But, let’s be honest, who among us is totally prepared for the apocalypse? And who wouldn’t want to loot designer threads or name brand cosmetics? (That shit is expensive).
The supporting cast of characters do their best to fade into the background, with one real exception. Ruby’s mother and her little brother Henry have little development beyond family members, same with ‘love interest’ Caspar, same with ‘rescued preteen’ Princess, and even ‘possible love interest’ Darius Spratt. The only other character with decent development beyond Ruby is her stepfather, Simon, and I related really well with how their relationship was set up and changed throughout the narrative. The end goal of Ruby’s quest is to find her father in London, but beyond the fact he’s her dad we don’t really care. While the stakes are admirable and life-and-death narratives are always gripping, there really isn’t much to worry about. If anything, the animal characters are better developed and hold the readers’ hearts a little closer than anyone.
Lackluster character development and overused plot aside, what makes this book a decent read is the basic premise and the execution of the moments of revulsion, suspense, and horror. Killer rain that eats the flesh off of your body is pretty terrifying, and it’s even worse when you realize that it contaminates all public water, that water is needed to survive, and that people will kill each other in the parking lot of a grocery store over Aquafina. The descriptions of death in the book are well done and do have some impact on the reader and on Ruby herself. Some are sad, others are scary, and a few are victorious in some manner, but it’s interesting to think of how much killer rain would affect the world.
However, the ‘science’ behind the killer rain can be confusing. What makes H2O a sci-fi instead of fantasy/dystopian novel is that the cause of the killer rain is an Armageddon type backstory where an asteroid was going to hit the Earth, we blew it up, the particles entered our atmosphere, and killer bacteria was released in the rain with a taste for the iron in human blood. That’s where the science kind of falls apart. By saying that the bacteria is possibly after iron in human blood, but ignoring the fact that there is iron most living things and having a good seven or so named animals in the plot it just… doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t the bacteria affect animals? They have iron in their blood too? Why wouldn’t it kill the plants? Why… Just why?
While H2O is a fun, noncommittal read that is great for taking your mind off of real world problems and distracting you from an afternoon of chores, it’s not a book that I would recommend buying. Borrowing from the library—sure. Like most blockbuster horror movies that follow a trend it doesn’t fully satisfy, innovate, or stray far from tiresome tropes. Ruby is a realistic and great protagonist, Simon a wonderful supporting type, and the rain is scary, but that isn’t enough to redeem this unoriginal book. Read if there’s nothing else.