When I first added this book to my To-Read list on Goodreads about 3 years ago, I thought it was another take on the Akira concept – some kids being experimented on by the government and it turned out they made the kids too awesome and so the kids murder everyone and escape. It turned out to be much, much worse. I’ve read a lot of dystopias, but this one was the most disturbing one I’ve read. If you want to go in completely ignorant of the rest, go read it now. The rest of this review will contain mild spoilers (as in revealed in the first chapter) and any heavy spoilers will have the spoiler tag.
Although I’d been spoiled about the fact that it was a zombie book by seeing an article in which the author was interviewed about the movie, this would be been guessable by anyone who isn’t a kid the first time they mention “the hungries”. What I started guessing, but was revealed pretty early one – first or second chapter – is that the main kids are some special kind of zombies that mostly retain normal behavior as long as they don’t smell human endocrines. The tragedy comes, of course, from the fact that these children are being educated like normal children, even if their treatment is inhumane. They don’t really understand what’s going on, especially Melanie, our main character, who has a genius-level IQ.
From a meta perspective, what I like about what Carey does here is that he has a rotating POV that allows us to not always be stuck in the mind of a kid who has no idea what’s actually happening. There are certainly stories that are fun to read like that – for example nodding knowingly while reading Uglies while they guess at the purpose of train tracks and roller coasters – but this one is stronger for not doing that. Accordingly, Carey starts us off with the adult characters as caricatures. But as we pass through their POV chapters Grizzled Vet Parks, Newbie recruit Gallagher, evil scientist Caldwell, and almost naively maternal Justineau reveal the depths to their characters and their motivations. It’s a tribute to Carey’s writing that the reveals seem pretty natural. It’s also a great example of how we often ascribe the wrong intentions to people’s actions. On the medium level spoilers.
Eventually it’s revealed that the book takes place in England. Carey’s descriptions of society as the infection took hold and in its current incarnation give just enough information for us to fill in the blanks. Combine this with the eerie rules he’s setup for his zombies – they remain perfectly still until they receive stimuli – sound, smell, sight – and then they relentlessly pursue their prey and it’s pretty chilling. In the extra materials in the book, he mentions there are lots of differences in the movie, but I think this is one of those things that could potentially translate to incredibly scary on the screen. The junkers are a great addition to the plot as well – survivalists who were indeed able to survive society falling apart around them. Just as historians hypothesized may have happened as humans were first learning to have cities – they have disdain for those who have chosen to live in the walled, protected cities and have their own Mad Max like culture. Now to the big spoilers which will be in the spoiler tag.
Near the end when Carey reveals that it’s been almost half a year since he heard from Beacon, it’s pretty crazy. If I wasn’t already so addicted to this book that I read it in the fasted pace I’ve read a book recently – see the graph on the goodreads page – that would have sent my head spinning. Was Dr. Caldwell’s impending murder of half the kids going to be for naught because they were the only ones left alive anyway? Were they heading into a horrible situation where they thought they were safe?
Speaking of Dr. Caldwell, once you realize that without knowledge that the kids were special and that special lab equipment she was going to kill the kids in vain – it was extra horrible.
Finally – that ending, right? HOLY MOLY talk about Melanie making decisions! After 2 decades, the junkers were toast. And what was going to happen next? And what would the kids end up eating? That’s what kept me up after finishing….