☆ The Way of the Cicadas
by Audrey Henley
Genre: Science Fiction / Dystopia
Print Length: 358 pages
Reviewed by Andrea Marks-Joseph
Shocking truths of a post-apocalyptic world are uncovered when a group of teens leave the shelter of their bunker for the first time in a decade.
The Way of the Cicadas is striking. While not set in our present day, its harsh post-apocalyptic reality feels so plausible that it’s remarkably easy to sink into. The strength of the novel’s worldbuilding lies in a combination of our society’s hyper-awareness of how close the planet is to being unlivable and its heartfelt narrative driven by human spirit.
More near-future than dystopian science fiction, The Way of the Cicadas is the story of a group of people who venture out of a bunker that kept them alive and safe from nuclear radiation for a decade. They soon discover the world is more expansive and dangerous than they had imagined in all that time.
Told from multiple perspectives, where each point-of-view switch feels purposeful and enlightening, The Way of the Cicadas is never bewildering or overwhelming in the way a story so vast and impactful could be. Each interlinked narrative serves to provide insight, allowing fascinating motivations and their corresponding risks to emerge, and drives the plot forward in new, surprising, and intriguing ways. This is a story equal parts urgent and soothing, as we watch the group comfort, support, and encourage each other—despite tension, despite near-death experiences, despite never wanting to be wherever they are.
And we truly are with them at every level, through writing that is solid, visceral, and compelling. We feel their hunger pangs, their skin peeling and burning from radioactive air and black rain as they traverse the Nevada desert on foot. We also feel the warmth of new attraction blooming, and we experience the thrill of doing work that aligns with one’s passions. There are also some really fun shocking twists that readers will audibly and physically react to—whether that be a bark of bitter laughter, swearing in disgust at the moment of realization, jaw fully dropping, or eyebrows raising high up on their foreheads. Perhaps, like me, they’ll have reacted in all of the above methods by the time the book comes to an end.
Another aspect that makes it so realistic and wonderfully relatable to me is the body diversity depicted in the cast; The novel beautifully describes this as “a bouquet of body types.” As a multiply disabled reader, to see a variation of disabilities—blindness, limb differences, disfigurement through injury, scarred skin, and even agoraphobia—all presented as naturally as they are in my daily life, with an honest sense of compassion for these characters, is rare and worth celebrating.
Though romance is not the main focus of this story, the emotionally charged relationships between the characters are. There’s a lovely hint of queer representation that I didn’t register at first, but eventually came to smile warmly about. I also appreciated the moment that, through its outspoken characters, this novel about displaced majority-white Americans made a land acknowledgment about how the military base belonged to Native Americans before the US government “decided to take it to test its murder machines.”
At several points while reading, I found myself awestruck by how immediately familiar and fully-formed every character in this novel is. They are multidimensional people, navigating life with fierce personalities and cavernous heartaches hidden in the dark, desperately reaching toward hope and a sense of purpose.
There’s bookish Artemis, whose “number one wish had always been to become a ghost. But one who could hold books,” so that the only action in her life happened inside her Agatha Christie novels; Selah, a talented engineer who thrives through offering practical services where she can; Hayden, the medically trained, benevolent helper who wants to be a leader but doesn’t feel worthy (sometimes rightfully, as he’s not always best suited for the role compared to the others in his crew). Then there’s Brita, who doesn’t remember her real identity, who experiences violent headaches and mysterious flashbacks as she floats in and out of consciousness, whose sudden appearance at the bunker from the radioactive outdoors sparks a change in attitude for many; and Maisy, whose voice and touch seems to trigger excruciating pain in Brita, and who is much too comfortable keeping major secrets from the rest of the group.
We genuinely come to know these characters, through the author’s phenomenal use of introspection, self-actualization, reminiscing, and angst as narrative devices. We learn the devastating origin stories behind their personality traits, and it endears them to us even more.
Hayden’s actions—everything from the gentle small gestures he offers his fellow bunker classmates, to his bond with new guest Brita— present as a typical hero would: always admirable actions with good intentions. If you’re a reader who craves some of that sweetness in a sci-fi story, he more than delivers. Occasionally anxious about the impact of his disfigured injured hand on strangers’ perception of him but always generous and courageous. He’s the dependable character that readers who require the potential for a love story can lean on.
The attraction between Hayden and Brita, who he rescued and named, sometimes feels uncomfortable and laden with savior-complex tension—and I say this as someone generally unfazed by insta-love tropes in romance novels—but I suspect that was intentional. Hayden is protective and willing to sacrifice himself for others, and he certainly has a bit of a hero complex! That does not take away from our desire to see him champion the safety of his crew, nor does it reduce the satisfaction of reading him experience an exhilarating first kiss.
The Way of the Cicadas would be on-point perfection for fans of the TV show Snowpiercer, particularly the latest season’s arc when they bring a mysterious stranger from the previously-thought-deadly outdoors onto the train, and what that does for the group mentality.
The premise of living in and emerging from a bunker is well suited to fans of The 100, especially how the group must engage with and relate to strangers they meet along the way. When these characters walk through forgotten towns littered with remnants of city life, trying to hold onto their humanity, it feels very reminiscent of Station Eleven.
The Way of the Cicadas also harnesses the eerie beginning-of-the-end-or-the-end-of-the-beginning atmosphere that’s so strong in Fear the Walking Dead —but without the impending zombie attacks. Just like in these shows, The Way of the Cicadas’ characters find community with people who were once strangers out of necessity; arguing over logistics, limited supplies, secret alliances, and strategies for survival. The political undercurrent of Why doesn’t the bunker leadership want us to know everything we have learned out here? and What else have they been hiding from us? is just as riveting and reminiscent of the above shows, too.
I would recommend readers note content warnings for intentional poisoning, murder, infanticide, parental death, animal death, kidnapping & experimentation, and medical trauma.
Equal parts horrific, heartwarming, and focused on the hope inherent in humanity, The Way of the Cicadas is for sure one of my favorite reads of the year. A story I’ll remember as vividly and fondly as my all-time favorite post-apocalyptic TV shows. It reads so easily—truly an effortless read—and focuses brilliantly on the very human tendencies to seek safety together and individually in order to thrive. This book has really wide appeal and certainly has all the makings of a story that could be a mainstream success in line with the majorly popular comps I’ve listed, while also shining brightly as an indie favorite that I’ll hold close to my heart. The Way of the Cicadas is a novel I’ll reread as regularly as I rewatch those same shows just to hang out with the characters again, dusty hands, temperamental attitudes, radiation poisoning and all!
Audrey Henley has successfully written both rich histories and complex mysteries into each character and every new turn in the adventure. I didn’t want the story to end, but I was dying to know what would happen next! This is a writer with a profound insight into humanity and a tremendous skill for conveying a range of interconnected experiences at once.
I’d love for there to be a The Way of the Cicadas sequel, as there are still some answered questions and undoubtedly many horrors to be uncovered, over which I’m sure our misfit crew could triumph; but I would be delighted to read anything else Henley wrote in a heartbeat.
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