We Light Up the Sky, Lilliam Rivera (Bloomsbury 978-1-5476-0376-3, $17.99, hc 240pp) October 2021.
In what is likely one of the first pandemic-related novels for teens, author Lilliam Rivera’s We Light Up the Sky drops an alien invasion into the lives of three Los Angeles teens who are still reeling from COVID. (It’s important to note that the pandemic is not caused by the aliens; they just happen to show up in its wake.) Pedro, Luna, and Rafa are struggling under the weight of various family-related issues. Pedro and his mother are at the mercy of an abusive uncle, Rafa and his family are homeless, and Luna is devastated by the recent death of her cousin, Tasha, from COVID. The three classmates are not friends, each only marginally aware of the others and rarely interacting. On a field trip to the nearby planetarium, however, Luna loses a picture of Tasha, which would be upsetting but not catastrophic, if the picture was not found by a recently arrived alien that somehow manages to absorb not only Tasha’s appearance but also some degree of her memories and mannerisms. (Don’t ask – none of this is explained.) Upon first seeing her, Luna thinks Tasha is back from the dead, Rafa is extremely suspicious, and Pedro asks every question the other two seem unwilling to consider. And then “the Visitor” makes its presence known to the community in a less than friendly manner, and, as anyone who has ever seen an invasion movie can expect, all hell breaks loose.
So, what we have with We Light Up the Sky is an alien doing destructive things for unknown reasons, the adults reacting in many ineffectual ways, the three teenagers are the only ones who know what is happening (and they take far too long to figure out how deep the trouble is that they are in), and an epic battle ensuing, with biologically altered mountain lions in a mall. It’s a fast-paced novel, with lots of running away from the Visitor, until Luna finally accepts that she really, really, really is not dealing with Tasha. Meanwhile Rafa proves to be silently heroic, and Pedro, who has an active social media presence, becomes the best pal who holds the trio together as he gets their story out to the world.
Experienced readers might be thinking they have read all of this, in one way or another, before and they wouldn’t be wrong. (Echoes of the third season of Stranger Things are particularly loud.) Alien-invasion books are typically enjoyable, but We Light Up the Sky, for me, might be trying too hard to do too many things without honing in on any of them. It’s still a nonstop run-for-your life kind of narrative. In the end, questions about the alien aren’t really answered, some unlucky folks get murdered and tossed aside in a few bewildering paragraphs, and a lot of animals get physically altered in random ways. The heroes walk into the unknown new world that Earth has become, and readers will be left feeling a bit lost as to how so much has happened in so few pages and, more importantly, what it is all supposed to mean.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the December 2021 issue of Locus.
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