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Sirens Review – The Mysterious Sound Of The End

Sirens: The End of the World has a Sound. by Braden Cawthon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I think the power grid went down, because everything in my house turned off, and all the lights in the neighborhood turned off too. Then I heard a tornado siren, coming from somewhere downtown.”

Sirens by Braden Cawthon begins on a compelling and mysterious note. Joel Walker is asleep outside the city when he loses contact with his mother and little sister. At first the disaster that severs contact appears to be a storm, but as Joel returns to the city to search for them, he encounters some of the extremely scarce people left behind after the unknown event and he uncovers facts that hint at something far far stranger. Along the way we get to know more about Joel and the city he finds himself in.

Braden’s debut novel sets out with a strong premise and keeps the reader guessing what might be going on until the very end. The setting has a clear post apocalyptic lean, but Braden uses this opportunity to focus on the interrelationship of characters under unnatural duress and a compelling threat. It takes the reader on the journey to try and make sense of a changed world while surviving the new dangers this presents.

I found this book incredibly thematically interesting. The outcome is not what one might expect and the broadness of the events allow for the reader to project many of their own thoughts onto the shape of them as we go along. One example might be that the novel never directly deals with concepts of religion, and yet throughout the narrative there are distinct elements and questions regarding the meaning of life and death which evoke themes of belief and morality to the reader. We encounter parallels to cults and the importance of group dogma. These themes are underlying in the story are never explicit or overpower the narrative, it is entirely possible to read the story in a completely literal sense and still derive a great deal of value from it. Sirens deviates from traditional expectations and story beats in many places and I found this added to the sense of chaos and unease of the setting.

Another element I enjoyed in this novel was the strong focus on family ties and bonds of love other than the (fairly typical for YA fiction) romantic ones, there is a whole gamut of relationships in Sirens but the strongest was that between Joel and his sister. There was a lot of care and skill shown in making the reader really empathize with Joel’s plight and to make us believe his emotional landscape. He forms new friendships along the way, but these are not without complexity and there is even an element of looking back and assessing his relationship with his parents that gives us deeper insight into his mental landscape throughout.

The depictions of emotion in Sirens were authentic and thoughtful, and the author really gives consideration to the layers of internal conflict that the main character endures throughout the book. I personally am a huge fan of what is known as “coma writing” where characters endure their own internal landscape and conflicts and I feel like one of the strongest scenes in all of Sirens is a scene evocative of this theme. Joel is a complex character and one with his own flaws and decisions to make.

However, I didn’t feel like the reader was asked to agree with Joel’s conclusions, but to instead still question every aspect of what he thinks and says. Joel is a flawed narrator in a world of flawed narrators and this comes into play in several areas, where we have to ask if a character’s decision is entirely their own. I thought this complex approach to motivations and moral correctness was interesting and quite divergent from some of the acclaimed titles in YA fiction in this genre where the “good” and “bad” choices are fairly clearly delineated. There were many points where I as a reader did not agree with the decisions Joel made, but never to the degree where I felt “switched off” or discouraged from continuing.

The criticisms I could offer would be simple writing quirks which are entirely forgivable in an author’s early work and personal preferences on my part. There were times where I felt taken out of the moment by over-repetition of terms regarding to surroundings or over detailing elements in the environment. For instance I might find myself as a reader more confused than engaged by hearing the word “elevator” or “room” too many times in sequence. I might feel disengaged from the action by an over detailed explanation of a location or a character’s entire route through a building to a room being detailed in full when there is very little new information or insight provided by this. Using a character’s view of the world and what is important to them in the narrative is something that is important for that immersive edge that fell off a little in places here. However, I think that it is a fine balance learned with experience and one that will no doubt be struck more elegantly in future works.

I do want to stress that even with these criticisms in mind, the locations in Sirens are richly imagined and very well described. I could mentally map out each of the areas and the architecture of each and in many instances felt like the environments had a personality all their own, every bit as important as the characters which inhabited them, this gave a very immediate and immersive impression of the world that Joel finds himself in and the impact of the unseen “event” of the first night.

Another criticism I would present was that sometimes the choices the characters made could veer into artificial driving of the plot rather than lining up with something that the reader would naturally expect them to do. There is an implied element to explain this later, but this is something I noted in the early scenes as well. As a reviewer with an extremely keen interest in characterization this left me at times a little lost as to the heart of characters and murky on who they really were and what their ultimate drives were. Even Emily – who is a character critical to the plot – was a little lost on me and I don’t feel that I ever truly understood her drives in full through the eyes of Joel.

Some plot elements were picked up and put down without resolution, with some very vivid and interesting characters left to our imagination. There is a scene in a pharmacy that I felt had the strong threads of an impactful scene but this was not given due space to breathe. However this criticism is testament to Cawthon’s strong concepts and scene ideas, as a reader I wanted to know more. In this line of thinking I felt like there were perhaps too many mysteries also left unsolved by the end, and though a certain degree of mystery is absolutely forgivable in a work like this, I felt like some of the broadness of the events and factors at play left me as a reader not certain if there were simply too many gaps or if there were issues with internal consistency within the core threat of the story.

Regardless of these small personal thoughts, I had a very good time reading this book and feel like the intended audience would too, the characters are engaging, the story is a page turner that keeps you going until the end and there were many times when I thought I could predict what would happen next only for the story to take a twist to another direction I did not anticipate. It left me very hungry to read the next chapter.

Overall I feel like this is a fantastic novel with a very strong concept, which despite falling into the thriller genre also in storyline put me in mind of some of the best examples of online analog horror in the modern day. The ending wasn’t perhaps what I expected or on a subconcious level truly “wanted” for the sake of emotional catharsis but it did not disappoint me either. Sirens is a truly excellent first book with a resonant concept and I very much look forward to seeing what else Braden Cawthon has to say in future.

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