Numbers, by Rachel Ward, is a Young Adult book that was released early in 2010. I picked this book up for 2 reasons. Firstly, it was a brief foray into the world of modern YA fiction. Secondly, it got a really good review over at All Things Urban Fantasy, and the plot seemed quite different to a lot of other YA urban fantasy out there. (ie. there are no vampires!)
Jem is a 15-year-old London girl, who was a special ability. When she looks someone in the eye, she sees their number. That is, she sees the date that they are going to die. She’s had the ability her whole life, but it wasn’t until she witnessed her mother’s drug overdose at age 7 that she really knew what the numbers meant. She’s lived as an outsider her whole life, avoiding contact with other people as much as possible, but when she reluctantly befriends Spider, another young outsider, her life seems to be taking a turn for the happy. The two of them head into the city and are at the London Eye when Jem realises that something is terribly wrong. Everyone waiting in line has the same number, and it’s today. Terrorists are about to attack.
Thus begins the story, which focuses on Jem and Spider’s headlong escape through the english countryside, to an imagined nirvana at the seaside.
The concept is, quite honestly, awesome. I love the idea. I love the way that Jem avoids eye contact with people, and is cast in the role of weirdo outsider by her peers, because she’s too scared to look them in the eye. She lives with the constant fear of death–not her own, but the death of everyone she meets.
The trouble with this is that I found it really difficult to like Jem. She’s so wrapped up in misery and tragedy, that there’s no way to hug her without spiking yourself through the eye.
Spider, on the other hand, is even less obviously likeable. He deals drugs. He runs with gangs. He’s unkempt and stinky. But, despite all of this, his good points shine through. He’s loyal to a fault, gallant, and generous. And I found myself warming to Spider long before I was willing to risk trying to get close to the ever-prickly Jem.
With that in mind, I found it really hard to feel involved with these characters. Maybe it’s because I’m not english. Maybe it’s because I’ve never experienced the soul-crushing life of an underpriveleged streetkid. Or maybe it’s just because I’m 20 years older than the protagonists and target audience. Whatever the case may be, I found most of their actions completely ridiculous, and mostly wanted to give them both a good shake and tell them to stop being so damn silly.
Up until about page 150. When, all of a sudden, it got good.
There’s a fabulous scene where Jem and Spider are bruised, battered, and injured and hiding in a barn in the country. They have no idea how to survive in the countryside, and Jem is terrified of the cows nearby. But when it starts to rain, she goads Spider into joining her for a “shower”. This moment is so well portrayed, that I went from feeling vague unease and disdain towards the characters to loving them in about one and a half pages. (If only that feeling had come closer to the beginning of the book!)
Numbers had me, then, all the way through the phenomenal climax and to the aftermath. I couldn’t get enough of it. And then the last 1 1/2 pages lost me again.
I don’t want to ruin the ending, but I can tell you that I didn’t like it. I felt like it was a cop-out. I didn’t feel that there was an appropriate narrative reason for the ending to play out as it did, although it did create the perfect hook for a sequel. (Numbers: The Chaos came out earlier this year.) I won’t be reading it, though.