Gone was written by Michael Grant and first published in 2008. It is a science fiction / horror novel that focuses on how the lives of a group of teenagers are forever altered after a mysterious incident in their home town of Perdido Beach. The Gone series spans six novels, the rest of which are titled Hunger (first published in 2009), Lies (2010), Plague (2011), Fear (2012) and Light (2013).
Sam Temple is sitting in class one day when his teacher suddenly vanishes before his eyes. Exploring the rest of the town, he soon realises that this is not an isolated incident – everyone above the age of fourteen appears to have disappeared without a trace.
Gathering his friends; Astrid, Quinn and Edilio, he sets off to explore the town to uncover exactly what has caused this. He soon discovers that they are completely cut off from the rest of the world. A mysterious barrier has appeared around the entire town that has sealed them off from the outside. He also learns that a small number of children – himself included – have begun to develop mutant powers.
Things rapidly take a turn for the worst as the kids from Coates Academy make their way down into the town – lead by the charismatic Caine, the manipulative Diana and the vicious Drake. The Coates kids claim to have devised a plan to enable them all to live in harmony but Sam is not convinced. There is something about Caine that he simply does not trust.
To make matters even worse, Sam’s fifteenth birthday is only days away. Fearing that he will soon blink out of existence, he struggles to find a way to escape his fate while surviving in the increasingly brutal world.
When reading Gone, it does often feel as though the author has snatched things that he likes from a number of popular novels and thrust them roughly together in an attempt to create something original. We have the basic structure of a Stephen King story – the ensemble cast, the flaws developed from some childhood incident that shape the characters, the sudden moments of unspeakable violence – plus the fact that the barrier gives the feel of Under the Dome. Added to this we have teenagers developing mutant powers like the X-men and children attempting to create a society but reverting to savagery as per Lord of the Flies.
Don’t get me wrong, Gone is not a bad novel by any means. It just feels a lot like it covers ground that has already been well travelled. The story is not an especially difficult read and can be, at times, very predictable. This is not really helped along much by its lack of originality – as we’ve all seen this kind of thing before we already know what to expect.
The book also suffers very badly from first novel syndrome. Gone can’t stand on its own as it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The biggest of these questions is the nature of the Darkness – an entity that Drake and Lana encounter within an abandoned mine. We don’t really get a feel for what the Darkness is (or its intentions beyond coaxing coyotes into killing humans) though it is blatantly obvious that it will be important later. This is not necessarily a bad thing – a long running series can have on going plot threads – but it makes it very weak if you take it as a novel in isolation. It’s not like Northern Lights or Blood Red Road or even Twilight that all feel like complete stories in their own right. Something always feels a little lacking.
However, setting these gripes aside, the one thing that Gone does very well is to keep up an exciting pace. For the first part of a Young Adult series, Gone is an incredibly long novel (560 pages in the paperback edition) but it never once felt to me like it was dragging. The story progresses fluidly, keeping you interested with little twists and turns through even its quieter parts. Balancing this are action scenes that are fast-paced and, at times, brutal. Although the gore never feels gratuitous, it is very nasty in places . And that makes perfect sense. There’s no point in sugar coating the scenario. The nasty bits – though infrequent – are necessarily reminding you that every character is a minor and they’re being forced to live in a world that is constantly trying to kill them. This said, I probably would advise you to steer clear of Gone if you are sensitive to violence. It does contain a few scenes of torture and other nastiness that could could find distressing.
The characters of Gone are a mixed bag. The major cast is actually pretty well rounded and behave as you would expect children to in this kind of situation. Although one or two can remain level-headed and assume positions of leadership, most are rendered useless by fear and confusion. As much as I hated Quinn as a character due to his cowardice and outright unpleasantness towards his friends, I can understand why he behaves the way that he does. If you take a fourteen year old from normality, thrust a gun into his hand and tell him that he’ll be killed if he doesn’t fight, of course it will affect him.
Most of the primary cast develops well as the story progresses. Sam gradually moves from being a bystander to a leader while Orc (the former school bully) begins to feel the weight of his actions and gradually grows more and more withdrawn. All of the characters in Gone are flawed. There are no paragons. They have all done things in their past that caused them to feel weak and ashamed. As the novel progressed, these flaws helped me understand the characters’ motivations all the better and thus I could empathise with them. I could see why they acted the way they did and how their experiences shaped their outlook on life. This is how you build strong characters.
Unfortunately, as Gone contains a rather large ensemble cast, not everyone got a full chance to develop within this one novel. While Sam and Quinn follow strong character arcs, Astrid exists as no more than Sam’s love interest (and occasional exposition bot) and Edilio flits in and out of scenes, often being forgotten for large periods of the novel. Some of the other characters also get little plot arcs that invariably go nowhere in the end. Albert learning how to operate the grills in McDonalds seems important at the start of the novel, as does the reference to Mother Mary’s bulimia, but towards the end of the novel both of these characters stop appearing and their plots never really develop beyond an initial idea. I expect that these will play a role in future stories, and I certainly hope that this is a case, because they did leave me wondering how they would play out (particularly Mary’s plot which I cannot foresee will end well).
Worse still, outside of the core cast of around a dozen characters were left a whole host of children that I knew by name only. I did not care about these people – they were just cannon fodder. I often found myself having to flip back through the novel to remind myself of just who these people were and if they had contributed to the story previously. A large group of them can be simply summed up as “bullies”, but there were also “unimportant pre-schoolers” and “characters who are assigned a name and power but then fail to do anything to make themselves stand out as individuals”. This just felt like cheating. While none of the main cast seem all that expendable in Gone, the author could have killed any number of these extras and I would not have cared at all. I really hope that some of these characters get some development later on (I expect characters like Dekka and Brianna will, but am dubious about some of the non-powered kids) because otherwise when I reach Light and look back I’m going to be really disappointed.
So, how does the novel rate? Well Gone does have its problems. It’s predictable, contains some poorly developed characters and is not strong if you take it as a stand-alone novel. However, it is a very exciting read and it certainly is not boring. It sets the stage for the series very well and lays down the ground rules which hopefully mean that the characters will have far more room to develop in the subsequent novels. I certainly am interested in continuing this series and would certainly recommend it as a novel to take a look at if you get the chance.