I saw Brian Yansky speak on a panel with three other fantasy/SF writers for children and teens at the Texas Book Festival. At one point, the four writers discussed the first line of their respective books, and Yansky’s hooked me: “It takes less time for them to conquer the world than it takes me to brush my teeth. That's pretty disappointing."
It's a great beginning for a book titled Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences and sets the mood perfectly. Jesse, our narrator, is in the middle of class when an alien race called the Sanginians take over Earth. They do it via telepathy: all humans are turned into slaves in a matter of minutes by the power of the Sanginians' minds. A few humans with latent telepathic powers are considered superior to the other humans and taken to serve as slaves in the home of the alien commander. The rest of the book chronicles Jesse's attempts to deal with what's happened to the world and potentially fight back (alongside a few friends made along the way).
I absolutely loved The True Meaning of Smekday, and I hoped that Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences would be a good readalike. In many ways, I was not disappointed. Alien Invasion has a lot of humor in the same vein as Smekday – the “Our entire planet has just been taken over by hostile aliens but I’m going to crack wry jokes anyway” type. It’s also got a likable narrator, albeit a bit older. I definitely enjoyed the reading experience.
It’s no Smekday. I never struggled to read it, but I wanted more out of the experience. Everything about the book was slight: character, plot, setting, relationships, backstory. It all felt underdeveloped, like it needed more substance. It was over much too quickly, and not in the “oh my goodness get me the sequel” way (although if there were a sequel, I’d probably read it – like I said, I thought it was an enjoyable book).
I feel like so often young adult writers tend to sacrifice background or character development in favor of a fast-moving plot, and sometimes it works, but more often it just weakens the entire book. Part of the thrill of reading a science fiction novel featuring aliens, for me, is learning about the alien culture. We get a little of that in Alien Invasion, but not nearly enough. I know much more about the Boov in Smekday than I know about the Sanginians in Alien Invasion.
I could also tell that Yansky really wanted us to get a sense of the relationships between the four main characters (a couple romantic entanglements, a deep friendship between the two boys), and we get a skeleton sense of it, but it’s never fully fleshed out. When our protagonist refers to another boy as his “best friend” near the end of the book, we know that’s what the author was going for, but it still seems like we needed to be told – it wasn’t apparent enough from the story. I so often feel like today’s young adult books are bloated with 100+ pages that really don’t need to be there, but Alien Invasion could have benefited from another hundred, I think.
I think one of the main weaknesses is that there are really no side stories in the book. There’s a little romantic tension going on between a few of the main characters, but it’s never really elaborated upon. Additionally, one of the female survivors, Catlin, is kept as a mistress by the alien commander, but it’s only alluded to a few times. We meet aliens who seem sympathetic to the Earthlings and their plight, but their reasons why are explained away in a couple of sentences. Development of any of these subplots would have strengthened the book significantly. It would have allowed the reader to not only laugh at the funny bits but also feel the gravitas and impact of the very serious situation the characters find themselves in.
That said, Yansky made a good choice to include letters from the alien commander on Earth to his father on the alien home planet. These letters gave me a taste of the alien culture that I felt most of the book lacked, but they’re not enough to really make the book feel complete. Overall, Alien Invasion reads like a well-written outline for a fun novel – additional development in all areas would have pushed it from pretty good to fantastic.