MacHale is both a well known television producer and children's author, having written the Pendragon series as well as the Morpheus Road trilogy. SYLO, a novel about a group of teens trying to uncover the mysterious situation developing on their island, reads like a well written television script. It's smooth, with thrilling pulses of adventure set at exactly the right points to keep the reader moving along.
The novel is set on (fictional) idyllic Pemberwick Island off the coast of Maine. The cast of characters includes fourteen year old Tucker Pierce and his best friend, Quinn Carr. Both Tucker and Quinn are transplants to Pemberwick Island. Tucker's family moved from Greenwich, Connecticut after his father who was a civil engineer, lost his job, while Quinn's parents who are ER doctors moved from Philadephia to enjoy a less stressful work life.
Besides Tucker and Quinn, several other people round out their circle of friends. There's Kent Berringer, a junior who plays middle linebacker on the school football team and whose parents own the nicest hotel, The Blackbird, on Pemberwick Island. Kent is often hostile and bullying towards Tucker who isn't as athletic as the linebacker. Olivia Kinsey is from New York City and has been spending the summer with her mother on Pemberwick Island. She is older than Tucker and attends a prep school in New York. Tucker knows her because she is staying at The Blackbird and he often works on the grounds of the hotel. Tucker also knows cute, but odd, Tori Sleeper, whose father runs a lobster business. Todd is crushing on her but too shy to get to know Tori.
The story opens with a high school football game that turns deadly. Arbortown High freshman, Tucker watches as senior tailback, Marty Wiggins, has the game of his life. But whenever Marty returns to the sidelines, he looks anything but normal. Frenzied and wild might be more apt. Seconds after scoring another touch-down, Marty drops dead. But that is only the beginning of the mysterious happenings on Pemberwick Island.
That same night Tucker and Quinn go for one of their clandestine bike rides around the island and encounter an incredible sight, a strange dark shadow flying near the island's coast accompanied by faint musical notes. But when a brilliant streak of light destroys the shadow in a devastating explosion, Tucker and Quinn, shocked by what they have just seen, report what has happened to the local sheriff. No answers are supplied and inexplicably, the Coast Guard takes over the investigation.
Meanwhile, Tucker knows that there was something strange about Marty's death and he soon learns that Marty took a substance called "Ruby". He finds this out from a stranger, Ken Feit, who was at the football game and who approaches Tucker, tells him about Ruby and lets him try it. Ruby is a physical performance enhancing drug that works like no other, giving a person the ability to move and react super fast. But Marty took too much and it killed him.
A few days after this, life on Pemberwick Island changes forever. After a second death occurs during the annual Lobster Pot Festival, the island is invaded by a secret branch of the United States Navy called SYLO. Both tourists and residents alike are told that there have been several deaths due to an unknown virus. The soldier in charge of the quarantine and blockade of the island, Colonel Granger, tells people that no one is allowed on or off the island. Not only are troops mobilized on their island, but the entire island is surrounded by warships.
However, Tucker and Quinn begin to wonder if the invasion has something to do with what they saw the night Marty died. Tucker and Tori witness several incidents of SYLO using lethal force against the islanders as well as taking people away. Olivia tells Tucker that she has seen people taken away from the Blackbird Inn. Soon communications with the mainland are cut. As they begin to search for clues as to what's going on, both Tucker and Quinn struggle to determine who they can trust. It now seems that both their parents have not been forthcoming with them about what they know. And Granger is now after both of them because it seems they know too much.
Yet for Tucker and Quinn, the information they do have only leads to more questions; what is Ruby and is it related to the quarantine? is there really a virus? why are they completely cut off from the outside world? what was the black shadow they saw? why the use of deadly force on anyone trying to escape?
Tucker and Quinn decide that they have to try to escape from Pemberwick Island and let the outside world know what's going on. They formulate a plan to try to escape, and seek the help of Tori Sleeper.
SYLO is a thrilling read that combines adventure, mystery and science fiction. Each revelation in the story leads to more questions, egging the reader to continue onward. The hook pulling readers in is the death of Marty combined with the mysterious UFO sighting by Tucker and Quinn. From there on, there are more questions than answers.
The characters in SYLO, although typical, are well drawn. Tucker is believable as a fourteen year old boy, new to the football team, shy around girls and not certain about his life. He's the opposite of Quinn who is intelligent, outspoken and who seems to know what he wants in life, when he brags to Tucker that he knows he will do something great some day. Quinn was my favourite character. However, Tucker grows during the book, becoming more self-assured and determined.
Tori was intelligent, quick thinking and physically strong. In contrast, Olivia wasn't as practical minded, a softer more typical female character, but strong in her own way.
Colonel Granger, the bad-ass head of the Pemberwick operation, made me think of Colonel Miles Quaritch from Avatar. He's bold, has a short fuse and doesn't tolerate dissent.
This new YA series will have great appeal to teenage boys. It's a rollercoaster ride of suspense, with touches of humour, some tragedy, a heart-pounding climax and a hanging ending that leads nicely into the next installment due out March 2014.
SYLO by D.J. MacHale
Toronto: Razorbill, Penguin Group 2013