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Top of the Feud Chain (Alphas #4), by Lisi Harrison
The ending of this book was, well, ah-mazing. I was dubious for a while, particularly in the middle of the book, but decided to stick with it. It was definitely worth it.
Shira has disappeared, and everything has gone nuts in her absence. The girls are now challenging each other to (often dangerous) competitions in which the loser leaves the island. And the Muses are egging them on, making up even more contests and offering privileges to the winners.
One girl challenges Skye to a race in their personal airplanes. When the challenger brings in a girl who had previously been sent away from the island to be her co-pilot, the gloves come off. Skye chooses Charlie to be her co-pilot, but Charlie decides that they should fly Darwin's souped-up plane and bring in a ringer, Taz, to actually do the piloting. Somehow it all blossoms out of control, and suddenly Allie, Mel, Charlie, Darwin, Skye and Taz, are all going. In order to get the boys to the hangar without attracting attention, they dress them up in drag.
So, with two people aboard one plane and six people aboard the other, the race begins. Skye and Charlie's plane takes the lead easily (which surprised me considering the number of people on board), but once they are out over the desert, something goes wrong and their plane crashes.
This is where I became dubious. I kept thinking that the girls had blown it, and that they were all going to have to leave the island. Not only that, but I was used to the competition at the school being the storyline and was wondering if it would all be over when the Jackie Os got back. Then I took a step back and realized that this isn't really the story about the competition, it is the story of Allie, Charlie, and Skye. And to tell their story, they needed a larger enemy than other teenaged girls. Larger than Shira Brazille, in fact. Because, despite what Shira seems to believe, there are things larger than Shira Brazille. Nature itself is one of those things.
Fortunately, they do find food aboard the plane. They also find another, less pleasant, surprise.
Shira rescues her sons, but not the girls, and Skye and Allie become upset with their boyfriends for leaving so easily. Shira's rescue of her sons means that the Jackie Os are on their own in the desert, and Shira sends the girls a message saying that if they will be allowed back into the Academy if they can get back by sunset of the next day.
So the girls head back for school, but they die in the desert and their corpses are picked clean by vultures and . . . .
Of course they don't die. But it's how they get back and what happens once they get there that I found so stunning. I won't tell you whether they make it back by Shira's deadline, though.
This was a payoff well worth the three-book wait. And one of the final developments made me happy; Triple does get a reward, despite having been sent home early.
What follows is a spoiler for the ending of the book. If you do not want to know how everything ends, do not read any farther.
It turns out that the school is not just a school; it's a reality show. The audience has been rooting for Allie, Charlie, and Skye overwhelmingly, but none of the three ever took the lead. As a result, Shira ends up declaring all three the winner.
Not only did I love the scene when the big reveal happens (and when the girls realize that this is why there are cameras all over the island and why Shira was so upset when they all went down), but I also really enjoyed the idea that Shira would bend the rules so that all three could win. Shira doesn't strike me as the kind of woman who bends rules. I half-expected her to make them play rock-paper-scissors for it.
Of course, something that Harrison doesn't go into (and is why I am posting this spoiler) is that the parents of all of the girls at the school must have signed some kind of release form allowing them to be filmed. Perhaps that's why Charlie was not allowed to contact her mother -- her mother might have been likely to crack and tell Charlie that she was being filmed.