Book Review: THE WANING AGE (2019) by S.E. Grove
Updated: Jan 6
This is a spoiler-free review of S.E. Grove's The Waning Age, a sci-fi YA novel that takes place in modern day San Francisco and explores what an emotionless society looks like--and what the cost is of getting them back.
Around age ten or eleven, every child begins the process of "waning." Emotions run dry, and people are left with only their instincts to guide their decisions. Natalia Pena is no different--but her ten-year-old brother, Cal, is ten and shows no signs of waning. In fact, he's the most empathetic, sensitive, and kind boy she knows. When RealCorp (the company that sells drugs called synaffs that induce temporary emotions) discovers how special Cal is, they kidnap him. They want to discover the roadmap in his brain that allows him to access emotions. Determined to rescue him, Natalia embarks on a mission that drags her through the treacheries of San Francisco.
The premise. I don't read a lot of sci-fi or speculative fiction, but my intrigue with this story was enough to keep me engaged. If humans could neither emote nor have access to their emotions, how would we interact with one another?
The setting. First of all, I love cities. Second of all, I love that Grove picked an actually city to set her book in, rather than choosing a fictional setting. Not only that, but she picked San Francisco (where I've never been). New York seems to be the go-to city location for authors, so it was refreshing to dwell on the west coast for a while.
Is San Francisco really as grimy as Grove depicts it to be?
The dual perspectives. The story is told primarily from Nat's point of view, but Grove interjects with a few chapters from Cal's perspective, as well. Only, Cal's chapters are formatted as DM conversations. For a while, we don't know where Cal is, who he's communicating with, or why.
But we do get a few questions answered about the waning process and why it happens. These were the philosophical bits of the book that I found fascinating.
Not bad. It had a certain literary flare to it that I appreciated. Grove writes a few gorgeous sentences in here, but the prose is generally fast-paced and breezy. It's interesting to think about writing a character void of emotions. On purpose.
Move over Katniss, Tris, and Bella. YA fiction has a new emotionless heroine.
As I mentioned before, the pacing is solid. Every time things start going smoothly for a while, there's an antagonistic force ready to take Nat down.
Just okay. It's hard to connect with characters who don't have emotions, so this easily makes Cal my favorite character, even though he doesn't get much time on the page. Despite Grove's limitations, she still does a decent job of giving each character a defining trait. Nat is quick-witted, Joey is loyal, Troy is sweet, and so on.
Things I found problematic:
Nat is too perfect. She does too much on her own and doesn't invite any of the characters to help her--but she doesn't really need to, since she gets most of it done on her own anyway. Had she let Joey tag along more, we could have gotten a stronger perspective on their friendship, rather than the quick, "we've been friends since we were little kids" paragraph in the beginning of the book. I want to see their friendship, not be told about it. Grove really missed the chance for some interesting character dynamics and dialogue between Nat and Joey.
Regardless, I think it's cool Nat has a background in martial arts. I just don't know how realistic it is, though, that she can take on three or more people at once.
And where did she get that lipstick taser?
She also doesn't change much by the end. She doesn't grow. She doesn't come into any self-awareness of her flaws and shortcomings (because she has none). This is one of the major limitations of Grove's "emotionless society" premise: there are no emotional struggles to understand or overcome. The only room for growth could have been Nat gaining access to her emotions. I won't spoil whether or not this happens.
There is a lack of commentary on the social repercussions of a world without emotions. The scope of this book is too narrow. It feels like we're stuck in the San Francisco bubble. We never discover how the world has changed as a consequence of there being no emotions. Had Grove addressed this, the stakes would have been higher. Natalia would have had to rescue not only her brother, but the world from this dystopia.
Cal is too emotionally intelligent. As much as I love Cal's chapters, I don't buy that he has such a strong understanding of something as abstract as emotions. Not only this, but he can provide anecdotes and metaphors to describe emotions. Is this realistic for a ten-year-old? More specifically, is this realistic for a ten-year-old boy? In general, boys tend to have a harder time processing and expressing their emotions.
Non-threatening, flat antagonists. This book has several antagonists: Glout, Philbrick, the Fish . . . but all of them fall flat. Why? Lack of clear motivation.
The Fish are essentially gangbangers that go around hurting people so they can feel something. It's their violent way of reclaiming their emotions (it doesn't seem to work, by the way). This is cool in theory, especially because one of the Fish is Nat's childhood friend. This is an intriguing subplot that Grove should have paid more attention to. Since she neglects it instead, the Fish showing up to kill Nat often feels random.
Although I'll admit these scenes are heart-pumping, coffee-spillingly crazy.
Then there's Glout. He's a fascinating antagonist for multiple reasons. Despite seeming old and frail, kind and good-hearted, he's cut corners and has made some enemies. He could have been a far more compelling antagonist, had Grove given him more power. Instead, he's simply a henchman for RealCorp.
Then there's Tanner Philbrick, the main protagonist. We don't see him until the near-end of this book. Here we are, waiting for this big, scary antagonist that we've only heard about for a few hundred pages--but when Natalia comes face to face with him, they stare at each other and walk out. That's it.
Anti-climactic ending [semi-spoilers ahead]. That final showdown between Philbrick and Nat should have been epic. Instead, Nat decides she doesn't have the nerve to kill him, and that's okay for now--as long as she figures out some way to do it later on. The sad part? She doesn't. Philbrick is defeated by someone else. And he's defeated by someone else "offscreen."
This is, altogether now: borrrrringggggg.
Nat and Troy's non-romance is the last thing that irks me. You know from chapter one that they'll be a thing eventually. Unfortunately, there isn't much payoff for this later on. In fact, Troy's hardly in the book. And their one, big "romance" scene is over and forgotten before I have time to question what the heck just happened. And why is it never addressed later on?
Ranking (out of 5):
Okay. I know I have a lot of complaints about this book. Honestly, it isn't that bad. While Grove did not write this book to its greatest potential, I still found it enjoyable.
* * *