It’s hard to think of the New York Times No. 1 best-selling author of the Pendragon series and co-creator/producer of the classic Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark? as an average guy, but that’s exactly how D.J. MacHale used to define himself. He was an average student and an average athlete who admittedly spent more time on the bench eyeing cheerleaders than on the field eyeing a goal. These declarations of ordinariness are transferred directly to 14-year-old Tucker Pierce, the main character of MacHale’s new adventure thriller, SYLO.
“I wanted to write a guy who was really happy with being complacent,” MacHale says. “And he didn’t care if people judged him. He didn’t care if people thought he was great: ‘I’m happy in my skin. Everything is cool.’ But then you can’t always live life that way, no matter what your circumstances are. In this case, the world starts ending, so he’s got to step up his game.”
SYLO is the study of a usually complacent teen’s reaction to extenuating, mysterious, deadly circumstances—and crushes on two starkly different girls. Tucker is happy with a B-minus. He’s all right being benched. He’s content living on Pemberwick Island, Maine, far removed from the bustle of anything remotely metropolitan (think Amity Island minus the giant shark). His friends and contemporaries dream of escaping the sandy confines of Pemberwick, while Tucker is just fine living out his days of divine mediocrity on the sleepy island.
The calm tides of monotony shift when people on Pemberwick begin mysteriously dying, a creepy stranger appears peddling red crystals that promise bionic boosts, and the U.S. Army drops in without so much as a how-do-you-do to quarantine the entire island. Before long, Tucker joins his friends in their dreams of escape. Scratch that: He joins them in a desperate plot to escape since the Army—headed by a steely-eyed, coldhearted general—has no qualms about jailing, tasering, shooting or blowing up anyone who so much as looks at a getaway boat. With the authorities and their parents offering no solace or clarity, Tucker and his friends have to find answers and a means of escape on their own.
“When you’re a kid and something happens, what’s the first thing you do? You go to your parents,” MacHale says. “Well, I took away the parents; I made them part of the conspiracy. Then you go to the police. ‘Uh oh, the police are working with the bad guys here.’ Well, the Army must be the good guys. ‘Oh my God, the Army is shooting people.’ So, in all of my stories, I put these kids in situations where they’re always looking for someone to help them. Who do I go to? Who’s going to get me out of this? Who’s the one who is going to save the day for me? And ultimately, what they always come up with is, the only one who’s going to help me is me.”
Kudos for self-empowerment, but if you know anything about MacHale, you know self-empowerment isn’t an automatic escape route. There’s still a lot of sludgy turmoil to tread before an end is in sight. And since this is the first installment in a trilogy, there’s really no detectable end goal of peace, harmony and hearty cups of New England clam chowder. Try fire, missiles, bullets, blood and even more unanswered questions instead. I ask MacHale if, in a downpour of dystopian and post-apocalyptic books on the market, he would define SYLO as pre-apocalyptic. He’s quick to agree. “So many post-apocalyptic or dystopian stories were all about ‘it hit the fan some time in the past and this is what we’re left with.’ I’m talking about the process here. As you’ll find, as the trilogy goes on, it’s not just about the practical, here-and-now process, but also the thematic process.”
He’s hesitant to say more, for fear of spoiling unforeseen plot twists. And frankly, I’m glad. I don’t want to know. Well, maybe I do just a little. I couldn’t help but look for clues and codes in character names, their genealogies and their settings. I admit one of my conspiracy theories and ask MacHale to confirm whether I’m accurate or just a loony, overly analytical zealot. He assures me I’m not loony (or, for that matter, accurate) but is thrilled that his storytelling prompted such a theory. “I love hearing conspiracy theories, because it means that I have done my job, that I have put enough out there, enough ambiguity....” He goes on to say that “readers always want spoilers. They always want to know what’s going on. And my answer to that is I hate spoilers because I don’t want to tell you what’s going on, and I also don’t want to tell you what’s not going on,” he explains. “It’s kind of like the classic truism of a scary story: What makes a story scary is not what happens, it’s what you think might happen. You’re walking down a corridor full of closed doors; you don’t know which one of them might suddenly open up and be a boogeyman back there. So, therefore you are terrified as you’re walking down that corridor.”
SYLO is a corridor. It’s a long, suspense-ridden, nightmare corridor with lots of shut doors. Except there’s not just one boogeyman lurking, there are many. And those boogeymen are harboring secrets, lies, macabre intentions, lethal agendas, and some of the craziest, bad-ass arsenals no one has ever seen. I share MacHale’s disdain for spoiler alerts, but I’m going against that notion to reveal a few anyway. You’ll be ravenous for the second installment in this trilogy. You’ll find Tucker’s path from complacency to action hero genuine. You’ll feel like you are acquainted with Pemberwick intimately and that the world as you knew it has slammed to a whiplash halt. And you’ll totally want a steaming order of Maine lobster by Chapter 7.
Gordon West is a writer, illustrator and, sometimes, photographer living in Brooklyn. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and French macarons.