The Big Awake – ‘Everlost’ by Neal Shusterman

I’m a big fan of Neal Shusterman’s Unwind.  In a world full of Young Adult dystopias, it’s second to none.  The Everlost sequence of books is aimed a slightly younger readers (12-15), and despite being about dead children, is a much lighter read than Unwind.   Shusterman’s prose is fluid and engaging; he writes with a wry sense of humour.  His books pack an emotional punch whilst asking thought provoking questions about life and death.

Although the series is a trilogy, as is often the way, the first novel stands above the other two.  ‘The Everlost’ is a place between worlds.  Some children (and it is only children, the novels contain [almost] no adults), don’t get to wherever it is you go when you die. Instead they get stuck in a world that coexists with our own. The children of the Everlost (called Everlights) can see what is happening in the real world, but cannot interact with it, and are invisible to the living. Shusterman does not dwell on death and dying until late on in the first book.  For much of the time, The Everlost functions as a fantasy setting in which an interesting story unfolds.

Nick and Allie are passengers in two cars involved in a head-on collision.  On their arrival in Everlost, they meet Lief, a boy who has been dead for over a hundred years. Lief introduces them to the peculiarities of their new situation, after which Nick and Allie head toward their old homes, hoping to find out what has happened to their families. On their way, they meet various denizens of Everlost, the strong and the weak, the friendly and the not so friendly. One thing that they do learn is that everybody in the Everlost, no matter who they are, is scared of the monsterous McGill.

The magic of ‘Everlost’ is in the quality of Shusterman’s world building. He has constructed a completely credible afterlife. Objects can come through too The Everlost, but only if they were loved. As a result, there are lots of musical instruments, and vinyl records, but no CD’s or record players. This is a subtle way of examining how we form attachments to inanimate objects. Buildings too, can make it to the Everlost, which makes for interesting reading once the children reach New York.  The opening novel is riveting from start to finish, with some great devices (including the best use of fortune cookies in fiction, ever!). The story is both exciting and a moving examination of good, evil and the blurred areas between them.

The second novel, picks up sometime after the first, but as time is a malleable concept in the Everlost, this doesn’t mean a great deal. Once again, its major themes are loss and redemption.  In order to flesh out his story, Shusterman adds new concepts to the Everlost, most of which work well, but there are some that do not.  As we move into the third novel, the rules of the Everlost change yet again, and not for the better. In the first novel, The Everlost was an almost perfect creation, but a result of Shusterman’s tinkering, its internal logic gradually becomes corrupted.  Shusterman’s changing of the rules, to give him more room to tell his story works to the detriment of the idea as a whole.  They’re his rules, so he can do what he wants with them, but as the series ended, I felt that the laws governing The Everlost wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny.  After reading the first instalment, I would have said they were bulletproof.

The series increasingly focuses on ‘Skinjackers’; Everlights who can take over bodies in the living world and affect events there. These interactions can be for good or ill, and have unexpected consequences. Shusterman enjoys exploring the moral implications of playing God, and asks the question, is it OK to take one life to save the lives of hundreds of others?  The increased number of real-world interactions  means that The Everlost no longer exists in splendid isolation. Instead of being an Afterlife, it becomes more of an ‘Alongside’ life.

But these are still great novels. The ultimate conclusion of the series is never in much doubt, but the route to the finale is every bit as thrilling and thought-provoking as fans of Shusterman have come to expect.  Each book is filled with wit and verve, contain excitement in abundance and are brimming with invention.  The climax of the series is fitting and moving.  With all the characters being dead children, finding a fitting and respectful conclusion must have been a great challenge. Never maudlin or exploitative, Shusterman delivers a well-balanced and emotional finale for characters you can’t help but love.  Neal Shusterman’s books are excellent, a cut above most of what else is out there. It’s a great shame he seems to be so criminally under-read.

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