Life has its ups and downs, doesn't it? And Martha and her friends are really sick of going up, and down, and up, and down. After a traumatic event that no one can talk about or even quite remember, they're stuck on a giant killer jellyfish, tantalisingly close to the shore and safety. They've had enough of it. They've decided that they're either going to escape, or die trying. A YA novel like no other, Jelly is touching, funny and truly unique.
Okay wow I've never seen a jellyfish this menacing since I watched Spongebob Squarepants S02E29: Jellyfish Hunter (cracking episode btw, 10/10 would watch again). I'm trying to work out where to start with my review for this book but I mean seriously... it's a YA dystopia set on top of a giant killer jellyfish - where do you even begin with something like that?!
Jelly is one of those books that you stumble upon by accident and read the blurb because you're intrigued... except the blurb makes absolutely no sense and the whole things sounds a bit insane so you're like, "Sure, what the hell. Sounds like fun." I love those kinds of books. It's how I discovered Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith and that ended up being one of my favourite YA novels so I knew I had to take a chance on Jelly. And if you've read Grasshopper Jungle there's actually quite a lot of overlap. They're both dystopian apocalypses told from the perspective of teens. They both depict the end of humanity brought about by some weird-ass animals - jellyfish and lobster-boys called Kriks in Jelly, horny six-foot tall praying mantises in Grasshopper Jungle. And they both feature absolutely absurd plots that make zero sense but are super fun to read!
(And yes, I did say lobster-boys and horny six-foot tall praying mantises, and yes, you do now want to read both of these books. I told you these bizarre plots are just too damn irresistible!)
Anyway, back to the review.
What I Loved
One of the things I loved about Jelly is the way it completely throws you in at the deep end (see what I did there 😏). We're on a jellyfish, we have no idea how we got here, but these characters have been stuck here for like two years and they are seriously bored as hell. I love it when dystopian novels put you right in the middle of the narrative without giving you all the details. Why are these people on a jellyfish? How did they get there? How have they survived for so long? How is a jellyfish big enough to carry 20-30 people?! So many questions! Clare Rees does an excellent job at drip-feeding you information, revealing only snippets of life before the apocalypse to keep the reader guessing as they try to put together a timeline of events that led up to this dystopian nightmare. And it's super effective. Let's be real, very little can happen in terms of plot when your story revolves around a bunch of people stranded in the middle of the ocean, but not once did I find myself skipping paragraphs or skimming through pages. Rees's writing is compelling and even the most mundane aspects of the story made for enjoyable reading. I felt like a detective, searching through her prose with a fine-tooth comb for some clue that might suggest how these characters ended up in their gelatinous predicament.
Another thing I loved was how much thought went into depicting life on the jellyfish and how time away from land affected the main characters. Rees really thought about everything, from the essentials like finding food and fresh water and protection against the elements, to the little things like trying to remember the feeling of solid ground and working out how to fashion clothes from carrier bags. There's this one scene where the protagonist, Martha, talks about forgetting colour because she's been out at sea for so long:
"I'd forgotten about colours on the Jellyfish. I knew them, obviously, and remembered them, but I think they'd got paler and more washed-out in my mind, alongside the memories. When you're used to just seeing greys, whites and browns, you do forget, and the perfection and amazement of a colour like orange, or red, is difficult to describe."
You can tell that the author has really thought about how it would feel to be stranded in the middle of the ocean and it's in these scenes where Rees's writing is at its best. I found myself contemplating how I would cope if I were in Martha's shoes. Who would I be close to? What would I do to pass the time? What trivial things might become treasures to me? It's a really thought-provoking concept and the writing is so immersive that it's impossible not to picture yourself trapped on the jellyfish alongside Martha and her companions.
Which brings me to my next point - I loved the dynamics between the Jelly-residents (yes I am calling them that) and their varying degrees of sanity. There's this real sense of community between this misfit bunch and I loved seeing how their days were structured around things like jellyfish rugby, lectures, fitness/combat training and schoolwork in order to pass the time. Everyone had their own role and you could tell that even though these people started out as strangers, there's this strong bond between them all. My personal favourite was crazy Old Albert with his Dire Warnings: "Mark my words, and think about your coming death. Do you want to be eaten by a killer jellyfish, or do you want to have your flesh gnawed by a giant crab?" Jeez... remind me never to play Would You Rather with this guy.
What I Didn't Love
Despite all the things I loved about this book - and I really did love it - I felt like there were a few areas where the author could have taken things a little further. We spend two thirds of the book stuck on a jellyfish just floating in the ocean and yeah, okay, I'm fine with that if there's a pay-off at the end of it all - except it didn't really feel like there was. Around the 200 page mark, there's a real shift in pace and this is where the story starts to get exciting. I'm trying to avoid spoilers so I'm not going to say what happens, but there are some major developments and this is where I was hoping to have some of my questions answered. And just as the action kicks in, the book... ends?!
All of that build up for maybe fifty pages or so of excitement and then it just cuts off. Truthfully, I was a little disappointed - but that's only because I was so invested in the world Rees has created. I needed some closure - answers to how this dystopian world came to be, why the jellyfish took these people in the first place, whether there were survivors on the mainland. The answers to my questions were just skimmed over and they didn't provide a satisfying resolution at all. I'm holding out hope for a sequel because there's still so much left to be explored. What is out there beyond the jellyfish and what will change for the main characters once they reach land? With another 100 pages or so, this book could have been truly brilliant. The backstory to Rees's dystopian world could have been more thoroughly envisioned and there would have been space to explore how certain developments that crop up towards the end of the book would change trajectories for the main characters.
My only other issue (and this one was a biggie) was a rather major decision that the main characters make right at the end of the novel, which I felt contradicted the novel's message. I'm not going to spoil anything by telling you what happens - all I'll say is, throughout the novel it is repeated on multiple occasions that our current climate crisis is what ultimately leads to the world going to 💩:
"I guess, back in Before I feel like people spent a lot of time pretending, and ignoring things. They didn't believe sea monsters existed even though there were loads of stories about them and loads of sailors said they'd seen them; everybody still pretended they didn't exist until those people were dragged under the sea and drowned. And in Before people also said there was nothing wrong with the planet even though sea levels were rising, and the climate was changing, and strange weather was happening. All the people in the world ignored the problem and waited for somebody else to fix the planet. But while they were waiting it just got more messed up."
The book is clearly intended to be read as a parable about the consequences of neglecting the environment, which I totally get. But then right at the end ____ tells _____ that she needs to ______ and so _____ decides to _____ the ______.
ADSJNASBKJVBNDAJFBJDV - WHY?! IT MAKES NO SENSE!!! 😭
Sorry... I know that was extremely vague (and slightly explosive), but I don't want to spoil anything for you so I guess you're just going to have to read it for yourself to find out what I'm talking abut. And once you've read it, you'll know exactly what I mean.
Overall, Jelly is a great book and a breath of fresh air when it comes to the (sometimes repetitive) genre of YA speculative fiction. It features a brilliant - if slightly bonkers - concept with a loveable cast of characters, and it's one of those rare books that I think are suitable for younger teens - a demographic that's often neglected in YA publishing at the moment. Admittedly, the ending disappointed me a little and there's still a lot of questions that have been left unanswered, but I still loved reading this book and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others. I'm still holding out hope for a sequel because the story is far from over and I'm desperate to return to this world to find out what happens next.
Have you read Jelly? Let me know what you think in the comments below!
And if you haven't - what are your favourite speculative fiction / apocalyptic sci-fi reads? I'm always looking to expand my collection so I'd love to hear your suggestions!