Book Review: ‘Pandemonium’ by Lauren Oliver

If you’ve yet to read Lauren Oliver’s wonderful teen dystopian novel Delirium, you might want to get on that. Set in the not-too-distant future, Oliver’s novel centres around a world where love has been declared a fearsome, contagious disease responsible for all manner of criminal acts, mental illness, violence and bloodshed. It’s vaccinated against when children turn eighteen, turning people into passionless, docile drones. But when Lena – a naive young girl quickly approaching her cure date – starts falling in love, she begins to question the system, embarking on a dangerous journey to hold on to her love and cling to her identity.

Delirium washed up on bookshelves amongst a veritable ocean of dystopian Young Adult novels (much like Twilight, the success of The Hunger Games triggered a wave of inspiration and imitation) but Lauren Oliver’s novel stood out from the pack thanks to her exquisite writing, sharp, well-developed characters, the fascinating, beautifully realised world she’d constructed and the spellbinding love story at the heart of it all.

Fans have been eagerly awaiting the release of Delirium’s sequel Pandemonium for the past year, giddy with anticipation to find out what happened after that cliffhanger ending. If you’ve been camped out in front of the letterbox waiting for your long-ago pre-ordered copy to show up and put you out of your misery, then you’ll be happy to know that Pandemonium is a gripping follow-up filled with suspenseful action and an engrossing story.

But while Oliver uses the book to expand her dystopian world in interesting ways, evolving Lena into an even more captivating, substantial character, and her prose still proves to be just as gorgeously written, Pandemonium isn’t quite as fantastic a book as Delirium thanks to a few too many predictable moments and a romance that’s far less interesting in comparison to that of Lena and Alex.

(Spoilers for Delirium follow, so look away now if you haven’t read it yet!) Picking up directly after the ending of Delirum, Pandemonium finds Lena on the other side of the fence in the outskirts of the Wilds, having narrowly escaped the regulators who gunned down Alex. The narrative dovetails between the past and present as chapters alternate between the “Then”, where Lena integrates herself into the Wilds and the “Now”: a time several months later when she’s a full-fledged member of the resistance living back in society, covertly posing as one of the cured.

In the Wilds, she’s struggling to adjust to a far harsher and less forgiving new life than the one she’s used to, unable to ever return home and still reeling from the loss of the boy who was supposed to be the bridge between those two worlds and her reason for escape. In the city, she’s working for the resistance, keeping tabs on Julian Fineman – the charismatic teen poster child for the cure and propaganda tool for the DFA (Deliria-Free America), But when the two are captured by a dangerous faction and their lives thrown into jeopardy, Lena is shocked to find herself falling for a boy who represents everything she should be fighting against.

The book’s time-jumping chapter structure can take some getting used to, and it can be a little jarring and dissatisfying to flit between the two; the world of the Wilds is an incredibly interesting one, and seeing Lena grow and adjust to that life is far more gripping than a future we haven’t been fully caught up to yet. After a while, though, the zig-zag framing starts to make more sense: Lena and Julian spend a large portion of the book languishing in captivity, so jumping between there and the action and character growth of the wilds provides a better sense of pace rather than having it front-loaded with “the good stuff” before focusing on one hundred pages of slow-paced, cell-dwelling romance.

The NYC resistance segments expand on the world of Delirium even further, adding another layer of political strife and introducing us to more factions beyond the cured and those in the Wilds, like those born with birth defects, cast aside and forced to live underground, or the feral, nihilistic Scavengers – violent, chaotic and murderous uncureds who prove equally dangeous to society’s cured and the people of the Wilds. But even so, the “Then” sections which cover Lena’s induction into the Wilds are infinitely more engaging than her life in the “Now”.

The freedom of being able to express emotion in the Wilds comes at the cost of the basic necessities of society, which quickly hardens people’s spirits as they live day-to-day with precious little food or supplies. As Lena’s forced to earn her place in the Wilds under the wing of hard-edged leader Raven, we see her grow from sheltered, fragile girl to tough, strong-willed, self-reliant survivalist, shaping her into an even more likeable and substantial protagonist. The world of the Wilds introduces us to a group of interesting and well-developed new characters who we then follow on a harrowing, riveting journey of loss and survival as they struggle to endure a harsh and unforgiving winter fraught with dwindling supplies and the ever-present threat of Regulator attacks.

The future segments, though filled with plenty of plot and thrilling action, aren’t half as interesting as those set in the Wilds, the problem being the romance that fuels much of the book. To Oliver’s credit, Lena’s such a well developed character that even the rather dull Julian becomes a great catalyst for her character’s continued growth and inner turmoil, and her moving on from dead first love Alex is handled well enough that it doesn’t feel too jarring or unnatural. And it’s clever and interesting to be seeing the gender flip-side of Alex and Lena’s relationship: Lena is now the hardened, independent survivalist, Julian the sheltered, naive one falling for someone from the Wilds.

But Julian proves to be such a bland character, and it’s tough to shake the mechanical nature of having another star-crossed romance in the series so soon, as if it’s there purely because that’s what every Young Adult book is supposed to have to be successful. And stemming from that, having a romantic lead who’s the polar opposite of Alex makes it far too easy to see the big, surprise cliffhanger ending and the set-up of the third book coming from a million miles away. That unsurprising twist signposts yet another obligatory and all-too-familiar Young Adult genre cliche, which doesn’t exactly end the book on the most original high point or hint at an especially promising third entry. Predictability rears its head surprisingly often, and you’ll frequently find yourself at least a step or two ahead of the story, which is a huge shame.

The quality of Lauren Oliver’s prose is often unsurpassed by the majority of her Young Adult peers, and that’s no different here, but it’s a shame that such beautiful writing is laid on a sometimes predictable and formulaic framework. But while Pandemonium doesn’t quite live up to the immense promise laid out by its fantastic predecessor, on the whole it’s still a gripping, beautifully written, action-packed read which offers up substantial character growth, introduces us to some great new characters and provides an enticing wider glimpse of the captivating world we saw in Delirium.


‘Pandemonium’ by Lauren Oliver is out now in hardback and ebook format.
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