In Lev’s debut novel, she turns the modern taste for the post-apocalyptic and takes it back to a real apocalypse: the Fifth Extinction, the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs and nearly all life on Earth.
Set in the late Cretaceous and researched almost to a fault—occasional digressions on, for example, the mating habits of damselflies and orchids can feel didactic—Lev’s story concentrates on a group of Edmontosaurus, or flatheads, peaceful plant eaters living their lives by instinct in a world about to change entirely. They’re given descriptive names so the reader can distinguish recurring characters: Mother, Pinecone, Little Tree, and especially Lastborn, the title hatchling, whose inherited mutations make him different from the others. In addition to green eyes and multicolored skin, he’s smarter, savvier and occasionally capable of telepathy with other “changelings” like him. This Gift serves him well after global cataclysm—a comet burns through the atmosphere and creates not only a gigantic crater, but tsunamis, earthquakes and fires. The ash from the latter blocks sunlight, and the once-lush vegetation on which the herbivores relied dies off. Carnivores, at first glutted with the dead, will proceed to extinction themselves. It’s an ambitious endeavor, to say the least, to tell the story of worldwide prehistoric catastrophe; Lev is armed with a formidable bibliography, and most of her scenes are painstakingly thought through, even vetted by a bioscience consultant. A few individual dinosaurs that appear are based on real-life specimens, such as “Sue,” the famous Tyrannosaurus rex whose 80 percent complete skeleton is on display in Chicago’s Field Museum. Though the prose is unremarkable, it both conveys information and teases a narrative out of imagined lives. The sole misstep is in the puzzling choice to bestow the Gift upon Lastborn and a few others of his species. Why, in a fact-driven narrative, is this sci-fi element included? It adds little, detracts more.
Watership Down with dinosaurs; at its best when it sticks to the prehistoric record.