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Love at the End of the World: Dystopian and Post-apocalyptic YA Romance

by Molly Wetta

*This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of RA News.*

Readers of young adult fiction are often drawn into these novels because the characters are experiencing intense feelings of first love. Even when these stories are set against the backdrop of a controlling government or cataclysmic disaster, there is often a love story at the heart of the book. After the success of The Hunger Games and Divergent, the world of young adult literature exploded with dystopian and post-apocalyptic titles. Like Harry Potter and Twilight, these books had amazing influence on pop culture, and hooked many teens on reading. The market is flooded with titles claiming to be the next big thing in young adult literature, which creates great opportunities for librarians to continue to foster a love of reading.

Of course, with so many choices, it's a challenge to help a reader connect with the dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel that will work for them. In order to guide fans of the genre, it's important to know not just what books may feature controlling governments or end of the world scenarios, but also appeal factors like pacing, perspective, tone, and writing style, in addition to plot elements that may be what hooked the reader on dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction.

Romance is often an important factor in young adult fiction, and when characters are facing a repressive regime or trying to survive disasters that are poised to usher in the end of the world, it only raises the stakes of the love story. Helping readers navigate the dystopian and post-apocalyptic genre means knowing the degree and intensity of the romance involved in the story and how much it factors into the plot in addition to the other appeal factors.

Readers who enjoy romance but who are also fascinated by the what-if scenarios presented in dystopian fiction will enjoy Delirium by Lauren Oliver. The government ensures that citizens avoid the messiness and madness of love by undergoing an operation that prevents citizens from experiencing love and promises a safe and predictable life. When Lena meets a boy who inspires amorous feelings in her, she begins to question the motives and goals of the government. While the concept is intriguing, it's the lyrical, descriptive writing and the love story rather than the world-building that carries this novel.

Francesca Lia Block has been blending magic and rock and roll in against the backdrop of Los Angeles for decades, and the same is true of her newest series. Love in the Time of Global Warming reimagines Homer's epic poem The Odyssey in modern day Los Angeles. This offbeat and lyrical novel is a fast-paced read that appeals to those who like edgy stories. Pen, the protagonist, struggles with her developing attraction to her friend Moira prior to the disaster that serves as the catalyst for her journey, as well as the consuming love she develops for Hex, her fellow traveler. This modern retelling of a classic tale explores gender identity and sexuality within the framework of more typical dystopian themes. 

If readers want more retellings set against the backdrop of a dystopian government or apocalyptic scenario, there is no shortage of supply. Diana Peterfreund's For Darkness Shows the Stars is inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion. Moving the story to a future world does nothing to diminish the heartfelt romance between Elliot, the daughter of an irresponsible landowner,  now tasked with ensuring the survival of her estate and its residents, and Kai, the lower class boy who was her childhood friend. While the novel explores issues of class, slavery, and the role of technology, it's light on the “science” elements of science fiction and heavy on angst and longing.

The classics provide more inspiration for post-apocalyptic tales in Landry Park by Bethany Hagen, which is part regency romance in the spirit of Gone with the Wind and part futuristic tale of class conflict. Madeline Landry is resigned to continue her family legacy by taking over their estate and forgoing her dream of attending university when she meets David, a member of the lower class who opens her eyes to the systematic oppression that sustains her family's way of life.

Plus One by Elizabeth Fama presents an alternative reality in which an epidemic prompts global authorities to segregate the population into those who work and live during the day (Rays), and those only allowed out at night (Smudges). Sol, a Smudge, attempts to kidnap her Ray niece so her dying grandfather can meet the child. While her plan fails, she crosses paths with a Ray boy, and together they discover a sinister plot against Smudges, family secrets, and a budding romance.  This fast-paced adventure is a good fit for readers who don't mind a cliffhanger ending.

Horror fans who enjoy their dystopias with a side of vampires and zombies but still crave a believable, nuanced love story should check out Immortal Rules by Julie Kawaga.  Allie has always lived on the fringes of society, content to scavenge for food and defend herself rather than agree to donate blood to the vampires who rule the city and protect humans from the zombie-like creatures outside the walls. But when she's is attacked and near death, she reluctantly agrees to be turned into what she hates. Allie leaves thecity and encounters a group of humans searching for the fabled Eden, a city free of zombies and vampires.  She joins them in their quest and starts to fall in love with Zeke, a human boy who sees her as more than the monster she feels she has become.

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken is a bleak look at a future in which the only children who have survived a virus also develop superhuman abilities, and are then quarantined in prison camps. After six years, Ruby manages to escape, and connects with a rag-tag band of fellow teens as they dodge both the authorities who imprisoned them and the organization purported to be on their side, but may want to use the teens' psychic abilities for their own ends. A slow-paced romance develops between Ruby and Liam, one of the other escaped teens, and this complements the action of this thrilling dystopian tale. For those who enjoy listening to audiobooks, the narration is excellent with distinct voices for characters, making it an intense experience.

Readers who enjoy books with a breakneck pacing and cinematic visuals should try All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, which presents the reader with the moral dilemma: if you could go back in time to prevent someone from doing terrible things -- even if it meant killing them -- would you? And what if it was someone you loved? Although she has already failed fourteen times, Em travels back in time to kill James, her best friend and the boy she loves, who invented the time machine that precipitated the hellish totalitarian future she seeks to prevent. Together with her friend Finn, who has always harbored feelings for Em, they seek to rewrite history. While time travel stories are often rife for bewildering, intersecting plotlines, Terrill manages to avoid these confusions and delivers an action-packed thriller with a heavy dose of romance. In a genre packed with trilogies, this stand alone novel has a satisfying, thought-provoking ending that is equal parts heart-pounding and heart-breaking.

Readers looking for a more contemplative tale of love at the end of the world should enjoy Tumble & Fall by Alexandra Coutts, which follows several teens in the days before an asteroid collides with Earth. The pending disaster doesn't overshadow the drama in these teens life, but prompts them to forgive, to love, and to find peace. In contrast to gritty dystopian fast-paced thrillers, this thoughtful examination of the period just before a disaster focuses more intensely on the characters and their motivations, their longings and regrets. Although polar opposite in tone, the audiobook offers readers an immersive experience like The Darkest Minds. The dreamy narration lulls listeners into the story and is a great way to experience this compelling, character-driven novel.

Challenging authority, testing boundaries, and contemplating survival in desperate conditions will always be a part of young adult literature. These conditions are taken to the extreme in dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels, which guarantee their continued appeal, even after the craze of the previous blockbusters in the genre fade. Authoritarian governments and cataclysmic disasters only amplify the complications of young love, so romance set against these life-threatening situations make compelling stories. Young adult literature offers a variety of stories of love at the end of the world, from sarcastic satires to action-packed adventures and everything in between. 

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Molly Wetta is the YA and Media Selector at Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, KS, where she wrangles a teen book club and manages the library's Tumblr. She also contributes to YALSA's young adult literature blog, The Hub