Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Tomorrow When the War Began CoverBook description:
When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong—horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured—including their families and all their friends.

Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: they can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

It’s been several weeks now since I finished Tomorrow, When the War Began. Normally, I write a book’s review as soon as I finish reading it, but I feel like I’m still processing this one to some extent, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

This is due in part to the fact that I have greatly enjoyed the other books by John Marsden that I have read, and so built this series up in my mind as something that was going to be jaw-droppingly amazing. And when it turned out not to be so, even though it’s still quite good in general and genuinely riveting in parts, I was a kind of disappointed.

This is the story of seven Australian teenagers (later eight) living in the rural town of Wirrawee who go camping while their parents and most of the people in town are attending a fair. The kids return to find that a mysterious military force has invaded Australia and has imprisoned most of the townspeople at the fairgrounds, including their families. They must decide what, if anything, they’re going to do to help. Ellie Linton has been tasked with chronicling their story.

Large portions of the tale are pretty fascinating. The teens are resourceful and rise to the occasion, especially Ellie’s clown/daredevil childhood friend, Homer, who emerges as the group’s leader, and Fiona, a ladylike rich girl who proves to have unexpected reserves of courage. While Homer is the tactician of the group, Ellie seems to find herself trusted with the most dangerous missions, which require some quick, inventive thinking on her part in difficult situations involving things like exploding lawn mowers, demolition derby bulldozers, and exploding gas tankers.

I even liked the parts of the story where the characters talk about what they’re going to do—are we going to hide out here in our camping spot, or are we going to try to engage the enemy somehow?—and the various supplies they’re going to need from town, whether to keep chickens, etc. Where the story really bogs down, however, is with the introduction of romance.

Ellie has never considered Homer in a romantic way before, but begins to see him in a new light given his metamorphosis. Meanwhile, she’s also intrigued by Lee, the inscrutable Asian musician, and Homer has fallen for Fiona. Ellie dwells a lot on her confusion before ultimately deciding upon Lee, and then telling readers about all the making out their doing and how she has learned the things that make him groan, etc. I kept thinking how embarrassing all of this will be for Lee whenever he/anyone reads this official chronicle!

Anyway, it’s not that I am anti-romance or anything, but it’s just that these scenes really slow down the pace of the story. And maybe that is the point. Even if something as dramatic as an invasion has occurred, there will still be a lot of downtime if you’re hiding out in the woods, and a lot of time for more mundane things to be going on.

I guess what it boils down to is that my perception of the book has been hampered by my expectations. I am certainly going to read the rest of the series, and hopefully I will like it better now that I’ve reconciled myself to what it actually is rather than what I thought it was.


Tomorrow, When the War Began (John Marsden)

Tomorrow When the War Began CoverThe Plot
It’s the summer holidays, Christmas is over, and Ellie and her friends are looking to have some fun before school starts again. A mixed group of boys and girls set out on a camping trip into the bush and are gone for several days. When they return home, things are not right: homes have been ransacked, parents are missing, and pets and other animals are dead. They soon discover, to their horror, that the country has been invaded and most of the town captured.

My Thoughts
I’ll begin by stating that I’ve never been a huge fan of the dystopian genre. It’s hard for me to explain exactly why: I’ve read many examples of this genre and even enjoyed them. They’re often very important books, which can serve to illustrate the slippery slope society is currently on, or could easily begin rolling down. But on a fundamental level they bother me. It’s not just that the excuse for the dystopian elements being introduced is often flimsy or poorly explained (but that is a big and common problem). It may be that I just don’t really want to think about the world being so disturbingly screwed up. Especially since much of the time these books don’t really provide any hint that conditions will improve for most people even after the heroes have done what they’re going to do.

That said, while Tomorrow, when the War Began shares many traits with books in the currently burgeoning Dystopian YA category, I’m not sure if I would put it there or not. My feeling is that in a typical example of the genre, you begin with the dystopic situation already well-established. Whatever events led to its creation may or may not be within living memory or even remembered at all. In either case it’s usually very entrenched by the time the reader and the hero arrives on the scene. That is not the case here. Ellie and her friends are typical rural Australian teens, living in or near a small town with their families. Their lives are normal (though pre-internet and cellphone, as this was originally written in the early 90s). They decide to have a camping trip into the bush to better enjoy the tail end of summer vacation before school starts up again, so a group of seven boys and girls head off to camp in an area even more remote than some of their family ranches. Author Marsden takes advantage of the camping interlude, which comprises the initial 20% of the book, to try and flesh out the characters as they are before circumstances will force them to change. His success there is only middling, as it’s difficult to establish the personalities of seven individuals in such a small space without resorting to stereotypes to fill in the blanks. Happily, he mostly avoids using such stereotypes as a crutch for most of them, with the exception perhaps of Fiona, who seems to me pretty much straight out of the rich-pretty-girl box.

The action gets started when our group of high schoolers returns from their camping trip to find something strange has happened. The family ranches which they arrive at first are abandoned, animals have been killed, the power is out, and there’s no hint as to where the people have gone. We have another instance of win here where the kids are appropriately creeped out and cautious as a result of these oddities, but not really ready to let themselves imagine what might have happened. (Though I did find it odd that none of them seemed to speculate about alien abduction. Is that just too ridiculous? But the situation was bizarre! If that’s not a time to let your imagination out, I don’t know when it is.) They soon conclude the area has been invaded by some outside aggressor, a conclusion which is confirmed when they find a fax sent by a parent waiting for them at one of the abandoned houses.

What I most enjoyed about the book at this point was that the ambitions of the characters matched their abilities and knowledge. They did not (spoilers!) put together an amazing plan to destroy the invaders; they did not hack into the national defense system and save the world; they did not even come up with an improbable and complicated plan to free all of the hostages being held at the camp in the town. They kept their goals small and attainable, and had a realistic amount of problems in executing them. They were upset, scared and tempted to try and run away from it all — and not at all positive that wouldn’t be the best course of action anyway.

That’s not to say it was perfect. Perhaps its biggest weakness was the treatment of the female versus the male characters. While everyone is portrayed as very competent and there’s no real arguing that the girls are going to be equal and equally effective partners in their resistance efforts, was it really necessary to have the only two characters to have a dramatic mental breakdown be female? I don’t think it would have affected the story at all if, say, Kevin had been the one to see his home destroyed and had gone hysterical as a result. That it was Corrie instead just undercut the generally positive portrayal of girls in the book.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the truly appalling cover art on the edition of the book which I read. It is hideous. If I had picked this book up off the shelf in the bookstore, intrigued by the title, I would most likely have put it right back down after seeing this bizarro picture on the front. Fortunately, more recent editions have come out with a much more modern, appealing set of covers.

In Short
Tomorrow, when the War Began is a solid entry in the genre of YA speculative fiction with a dystopian bent. It also scores well on gender equality, though there were a few bits here and there along those lines that troubled me. It would work well enough as a standalone book, but it very clearly leaves so many threads unresolved that it’s a good thing the series continued. Even though the topic isn’t exactly my cup of tea, I may find myself tracking down the rest to find out how it all turns out.


J’s Take on Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Tomorrow When the War Began CoverLet me start with a description of the book, for some context.

Ellie and her friends live in a smallish town with a large rural area, so that she and a lot of her friends are ranchers. At least I think they’re ranchers. They’re on holiday, so they organize a camping trip into the bush. This being Australia. Seven of them, roughly evenly divided by gender. They’re missing Commemoration Day (also called Commem Day by the narrator) and the local Show (which sounds like the equivalent of a county fair around here). On that day, while they’re out camping, they hear and see lots of jets flying overhead. Weird, right? They linger a few more days, then head back. To find everyone gone. Utoh. From the title of the book, you might guess a war of some sort has ‘began’, huh?

I was going to start this review by saying it was fitting to be reading it in February, since most of the action takes place then. Only when I tried to look up the exact date for Commemoration Day, I got stumped! Thwarted! The closest I came to any such holiday was one celebrated by the University of Sydney. According to Wikipedia, Australia Day has a lot of different names, and would fit the timeframe (the narrator says at one point that it’s several weeks past Christmas), but Commem or Commemoration Day isn’t one of them! Have I come up with an anachronism? This book was written in 1993. Well, that’s not that old… older than Wikipedia, sure, but..

The author’s note at the end equates some of the settings to real world locations, but the author is generally making up the location itself. Did he also invent a holiday? Weird. Sure, this is science fiction, in that there was no such war in Australia, but otherwise it reads like a contemporary novel. Why invent a holiday? This reviewer is also puzzled by it.

But moving on…

The group discovers that their town has been invaded. Though I thought it funny they came to that conclusion. If I saw a bunch of soldiers who’d set up camp and were holding prisoners, foreign soldiers would not be my first thought. Could I tell American ones from non-American ones, at a distance? There are so many different types of American military uniform, that I don’t think I could. Not unless I could see a US flag patch on them. Or more likely, a US flag flying nearby. But this group assumes they’re foreign before they ever hear them speak. Which is another puzzlement, because the girl who knows six languages can’t identify it. What? You mean, not at all? I can take a good guess at most languages. A general guess, I mean. And we never hear what the soldiers look like. We hear they’re young, and middle-aged, and male and female. But not if they look Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese. How many nearby countries don’t speak English and yet look enough like Australians that it doesn’t merit a mention?

I admit, before we learned they don’t speak English, I thought America had invaded Australia. It’s just.. something we’d be likely to do.

One of the kids even identifies some jets as Australian and some as not. Boy, for me to recognize jets, they’d have to be flying really low. And, again, have a US flag on them. Southwest jets, sure, I can identify those!

So anyway, the kids try to find out what’s up with their families, and try not to get killed or captured along the way. And guerrilla hijinks ensue. So that by the end it was reminding me of Hogan’s Heroes or other shows and movies I’ve seen that featured The Resistance.

I liked that the group was roughly evenly distributed, and eventually does end up 4 girls and 4 guys, and that the narrator was a girl. She also does a lot of the action and dirty work. She’s their best driver, especially when it comes to driving bulldozers and trucks. Which is why I was particularly dismayed when one of the girls has some sort of seizure brought on by trauma. Followed by another girl just fainting, for no particular reason. And then the narrator herself has a nervous breakdown or goes into catatonia or something I’m not qualified to medically diagnose. Though considering she’d been bleeding copiously from a head wound just a few pages ago, you’d think people would’ve been worried about a head injury and not assuming it was all psychological! None of the boys goes through any of this. Grr.

Then they all start flinging around the L word (love, not lesbian) like it’s going out of fashion.

In general, though, I liked the book okay. It was interesting to see Australia, even if it’s a fictional bit of it, and to learn a few new words. I’d had no clue what a chook was until it was mentioned that they lay eggs. At that point, I gave up and Googled it. No such luck they’re ostriches or emus or some weird Australian bird. Chooks are just chickens.

Tomorrow When the War Began Old CoverThe cover art on the copy I read makes no sense until you’ve read nearly the whole book. I think I would’ve gone for some shot of the Australian terrain with some jets flying overhead. The cover we had up here on Triple Take in our Upcoming section does make more sense, with the jets flying over the ferris wheel at the Show.

Read it if you’d like to read some Australian sf, but don’t read it if you’re looking for answers to mysteries. We never do learn who invaded Australia or why.

Except when I was adding the cover images just now, I saw that the newer cover mentions this is part 1 of a series. The book itself felt complete enough, in a ‘this is our life now’ sort of way, that it never occurred to me there could be more books which might explain what this war is all about. Now, do I read the sequel? Do I watch the movie? Do I watch the movie sequel which is apparently coming out this year? Decisions, decisions.