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A supernaturally tinged YA adventure novel that’s set against the backdrop of the Apocalypse.

Wirth’s (An Unlikely Season, 2017, etc.) novel features a cast of seemingly ordinary high schoolers in Riverside, California: 17-year-old Melissa Jenkins; Gabriel Rucker, who’s the same age, and a star quarterback on the football team; his stepbrothers Michael and Aaron; and their friends Daniel and Donnie Conan. A huge, ominous storm is brewing over the West Coast of the United States, leading TV commentators to reference the end of the world. Unbeknownst to any of these characters, Jonas Smith—a scientist code-named “Scarecrow” who works at a secret facility called the Serenity Institute, for a mysterious figure known as “Monarch”—is perfecting a process that essentially turns people into living zombies, whom the institute can control in any way it sees fit. At first, the worlds of the institute and the teens seem totally unconnected. But as the fast-paced narrative progresses, the young people become more deeply involved in the Serenity Institute’s work—particularly when Michael is sent there to remedy his anti-social behavior, and apparently falls prey to Scarecrow’s illicit procedures. This lean and involving adventure tale, at its best, brings to mind the work of Stephen King (who recently published a very different novel titled The Institute) and Dean R. Koontz, but it’s squarely aimed at a YA audience. It’s also steeped in religious imagery and ideas; indeed, the storm in the background is just one of many physical manifestations of the Christian end times: “I think that angels watch over us—the chosen ones at least,” muses one character, once the novel’s action takes off. “The angels give us signals and messages, and if we listen and pay attention to the messages, good things will happen.” It’s not for nothing that Scarecrow thinks, “Have I sold my soul?As the cast of teens runs afoul of the institute and its garish minions, Wirth handles the requisite chases very effectively. Indeed, at times, the book brings to mind a smooth combination of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and Left Behind.

A brisk, compelling thriller about heroic young people fighting the greatest of evils.

Page count: 251pp
Program: Kirkus Indie
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