Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

9780316278157_custom-4b6f6070cf9d45bd536b496e5b1bd53da6c2e780-s99-c85If you’re going to write a zombie novel these days, you have to give readers something truly new because by this point, if someone is interested in reading a story about zombies, they’ve undoubtedly read all the usual approaches by now. I am happy to say that M. R. Carey has indeed given us a fresh look at zombies in THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. I’m not going to beat around the bush as some other reviews have and pretend that this is something other than a zombie novel. That’s not a spoiler, simply read the back cover blurbs and you’ll know just what you’re in for. I’d also like to clarify that while this book is credited to “M. R. Carey,” it is written by Mike Carey, prolific author of the Felix Castor supernatural detective series as well as the Lucifer comic/graphic novel series (a spin-off of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman). Carey’s got a great reputation as a wordsmith and world-builder, so I’m not sure why the publisher has resorted to initials here.

Some mild plot spoilers follow, though I promise not to ruin the book for you.

Melanie is a very smart, precocious girl forcibly enrolled in a special school that is as much a maximum-security prison as it is a place of learning. The world outside the school is a post-apocalyptic Britain, with the survivors trying desperately to find a cure for the disease that has brought down civilization. I don’t want to say too much about the nature of the disease that brought down civilization, except to say that it is interesting and nuanced, and provides good scope for the story. Again, I don’t want to offer too many spoilers, but Melanie, her favorite teacher, and a couple soldiers are forced to leave the fragile outpost of a heavily militarized civilization in which they have been living and travel through a ruined Britain, giving the reader the opportunity to learn what’s going on along with the protagonists.

The zombies of THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS offer a nice, logical mix of shamblers, sprinters, and more enigmatic sorts, making their nature unpredictable and part of the novel’s mystery for unraveling. I was also pleasantly reminded of David Gerrold’s excellent (though still uncompleted after all these years) War Against the Chtorr series in which an alien – and highly lethal – ecosystem is gradually replacing our own.

Carey’s writing is very clear and eminently readable; this was the longest piece of fiction I’ve read by Carey (I’ve loved several of his stories collected in various anthologies) and his prose remains as fine as ever. Characterization, dialogue, plot, and action sequences are all very well done. I am happy to say that action and combat are strengths for Carey.

I can’t quite decide if THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS is a young adult novel or not, or if that’s even a meaningful genre distinction (aren’t YA novels mainly read by adults anyway?), and frankly, it doesn’t matter either way. This was a very fast, enjoyable read. Hard to put down. Highly recommended. The book was adapted for the big screen in September 2016, though I have not yet seen the film.

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Review copyright © 2017 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Dog Eat Dog by David J. Rodger

product_thumbnailDavid J. Rodger is a world-builder with a compelling vision. He has crafted a setting he calls “Yellow Dawn,” and has already published several supporting novels – DOG EAT DOG among them – plus a role-playing game and several short stories. In the mid-twenty-first century world of Yellow Dawn, civilization as we know it ended ten years ago. A pathogen (the eponymous “Yellow Dawn”) infected 70% of the world’s population, killing many and essentially turning the rest into fast-moving, aggressive zombies (a few more have been transformed into “orcs,” mutated humans who are forced to live in savage conditions in the wilderness). Most of the world’s cities had to be abandoned, though a few urban enclaves – like Manhattan – remain as heavily fortified strongholds dominated by corporate overlords and plutocrats. Because the plague struck at some point in the near future, Earth’s orbital colonies also remain uninfected and periodically intervene, covertly, in terrestrial affairs. Outside of the few cities still inhabited by living humans lie the Dead Cities and Dead Zones, areas abandoned to the zombie hordes that offer dangerous opportunities for scavenging. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Yellow Dawn infection is at least ostensibly connected with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, specifically Hastur, the King in Yellow, originally created by Robert W. Chambers. So DOG EAT DOG certainly has an interesting background.

The story of DOG EAT DOG is told through the eyes of two survivors of the Yellow Dawn, Mikhail Drobná and Carlos Revira, who quickly become embroiled in conflicts and politics much bigger than themselves. Drobná is a thug and bodyguard for a crime lord in New York City and Revira is a kind of freelance intelligence operative, but their paths soon cross as both men engage in a variety of complicated skullduggery for their respective masters. In the course of all of this, they both become isolated and more or less on their own as they engage in double-crosses and are themselves betrayed. I don’t want to give away too much of the details of all of this as, (1) the twists, turns, and reversals of fortune are an important part of the plot; (2) it’s all fairly complex, with lots of unfamiliar names of people and organizations engaging in secret agent and criminal cat-and-mouse games that would require more wordcount than I care to devote to it; and (3) I am reluctantly forced to admit that large chunks of the plot were not all that interesting or memorable.

I enjoyed DOG EAT DOG for the most part, but I have some criticisms of it. First, most prominently, the yellow dawn infection, its aftermath, and the existence of tens of millions of zombies infesting the wilderness areas outside the few small urban enclaves of uninfected humans mostly serves as backdrop. It’s a phenomenal origin story for a futuristic post-apocalyptic setting, but Rodger doesn’t do much with it. Most of the plot doesn’t actually involve the zombies at all; much of it is mostly a story of near-future corporate intrigue that could take place in a setting that doesn’t have any of the horror/zombie-infested, post-collapse elements. I wanted the infection and the zombies to be much more fore-grounded and a driver of the plot rather than mere backdrop. The action that happens in the less civilized areas involving zombies is very well done – I just wanted a great deal more of it. Second, the world of DOG EAT DOG is one in which traditional nation-states and all the familiar institutions of modern society have gone away. There are no more countries, or organizations like the CIA and KGB, or anything else with which the reader is familiar. Instead, we’re reading a story about E-FIB and UTOC and MOCID. It’s much harder for the reader to care about anything of those things, especially when one has to keep reminding oneself what those things even mean, and then guess what their interests and goals might be. It serves to distance the reader from the action on the page; that was a common problem of much of the cyberpunk of the 1980s and it still bedevils DOG EAT DOG. And third, while I know that there are Lovecraftian elements to the setting, they mostly aren’t depicted here. I love Lovecraft and Chambers’ work and would have liked to see it explicitly come into play in DOG EAT DOG. There are some really intriguing hints of sinister goings-on in the last third or so of the book, but they remain unexplored hints.

I really wanted to like DOG EAT DOG a great deal more than I did. The setting is great, and could provide a tremendous platform for any number of exciting stories. But the bulk of the story that Rodger chose to tell here is not really all that exciting. It certainly goes on far too long, and too many boring parts were never streamlined or excised by a draconian editor. I’d like to see more from David J. Rodger, because I think his Yellow Dawn setting has real potential, but I hope that the sequel to DOG EAT DOG does a better job of capturing my interest.

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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Colony: Genesis by Michaelbrent Collings

colony-genesis-michaelbrent-collings-paperback-cover-artThe Colony: Genesis
Michaelbrent Collings
ISBN: 978-0-9838071-3-1
2013; $8.79 trade paperback; $0.99 ebook

I’m a little bored with stories about zombies. Don’t get me wrong, I like them plenty, it’s just that I’ve read a lot of them and most of them tend to be pretty similar. So I wasn’t quite sure how I’d like Michaelbrent Collings’ first novel in his new zombie series, THE COLONY: GENESIS. I need not have worried – it’s really fast-paced, it’s engagingly written, and yes, it does have something new to say about zombies. It’s also the start of a new series.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

Ken Strickland is a pretty ordinary guy: he’s a high school teacher living in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and three young children. The day begins ordinarily enough – Ken is giving a test to his students – when they witness a plane falling out of the sky. Then another. Then all hell truly breaks loose when half of Ken’s students begin savagely attacking the other half, tearing them to shreds and shrugging off horrific injuries. Those bitten also quickly turn into brutal, unthinking killers. Ken survives the initial onslaught, but knows that his family is downtown, so he begins a desperate quest to (1) simply survive and (2) try to save his family, eventually joining a small number of other survivors of the catastrophe. This isn’t an ordinary zombie novel, and to be clear, it’s not even truly a “zombie” novel in the sense that it involves the dead coming back to life to consume the living; the seemingly mindless killers are still alive, but are driven to kill in the same way that the infected of the film 28 Days Later or Steven King’s CELL are. It quickly becomes apparent that there is some weirdness (beyond the obvious) going on here. For one, why did roughly half the population suddenly become mindless, savage, and enraged, while the other half were unaffected? For another, why do the killers periodically stop what they’re doing, in unison, and pause before resuming their killing rages, and why are these pauses growing shorter and shorter? And what’s going on with the insect populations, which also seem to be behaving strangely?

There is one element of GENESIS that I should note because I think it could matter to some readers: the book ends on a cliffhanger. We’ve been following Ken as he and his companions make their way through the zombie-infested ruins of Boise to the last known location of Ken’s wife and children throughout the book and, well, we don’t yet know what their fate is at the end of the book. We also don’t yet come to understand why or how any of this happened. We just have questions, and few answers by the end of the novel. I didn’t find it unsatisfying, as two sequels are already available, but some readers might be annoyed by the fact that this isn’t truly a “stand-alone” kind of novel. Frankly, I am genuinely curious about the circumstances surrounding all this.

THE COLONY: GENESIS is a quick read: the action is very fast-paced and tends toward the cinematic. Characterization is not deep (but then again, this is a story about people just trying to stay alive and facing almost impossible odds, so there isn’t that much opportunity for deep reflection and motivation). If you’re looking for a quick read of survival horror, and an interesting take on zombies, then I would highly recommend THE COLONY: GENESIS.

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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

0804136572.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Zombies are one of the biggest things going on in horror fiction these days. There are countless novels about them in every conceivable situation. But what about zombies and super-heroes? I know that Marvel Comics has put out some comics and graphic novels about the Marvel Universe dealing with a zombie apocalypse, but EX-HEROES was the first supers vs. zombies story I’ve encountered in prose format.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

The plot of EX-HEROES is pretty straight-forward. It’s set in a world very much like our own, except that a few, mostly minor-powered, super-heroes began appearing a couple years previously. Then, inexplicably, a catastrophic zombie pandemic occurred, essentially wiping out human civilization. Many of the super-heroes perished in the initial outbreak or its immediate aftermath. Those who survive manage to gather a few hundred human survivors inside a Hollywood movie studio, which they convert into a fortress. The survivors must deal with the problem of trying to scavenge the necessary staples of life while fighting off zombie hordes as well as what I can only describe as some zombified super-villains. The premise is played straight in EX-HEROES, always a difficult task in super-hero prose, and there’s a genuine sense of menace and danger throughout.

Clines is a terrific writer who has generally done a great job of developing the personalities and backstories of the super-heroes as well as crafting a unique origin for a zombie apocalypse (I won’t spoil the specifics of that, save to mention that it is very well done). He alternates between chapters depicting the current plot and chapters detailing the super-heroes’ backstories, which also present the lead-up to the zombie apocalypse. This structure worked very well to both build tension and explain exactly what was going on. EX-HEROES is a truly vivid piece of storytelling.

I feel obligated to note that there is one major plot hole in the novel that practically invalidates the entire premise. One of the surviving super-heroes is named Zzzap. He is essentially a man who has been transformed in a teeny-tiny star, with all the advantages that that implies. Nice guy, apparently, though we never really get a sense of his personality, but he’s stuck in that form. In the climax of the novel, we see Zzzap fly through the heads of hundreds of zombies, incinerating what’s left of their minds and rendering them inert, accomplishing this feat within a few seconds. Just prior to this, another character asks him why he doesn’t do just this and he says that he finds it gross. Sorry, Zzzap, it really doesn’t matter if you find it “gross.” Human civilization has collapsed and the few remaining human survivors are menaced by over five million zombies in the Los Angeles area alone. I’m sure that the human survivors who are forced to shove pikes through zombie skulls while fighting for their lives also find that pretty darn “gross.” Zzzap should have been out there destroying a couple hundred thousand zombies a day, every day, taking care of the whole problem in a couple weeks at worst, long before the start of the novel. It seems obvious that Zzzap should not have been included as a character in EX-HEROES; he’s simply too powerful compared to the rest of the heroes. But I guess since Zzzap is squeamish it’s ok.

That one issue aside, I heartily recommend EX-HEROES, particularly to super-hero fans, or those looking for an entirely original kind of zombie novel. It was a quick, fun read. There is a sequel, EX-PATRIOTS, though I frankly have no idea where Clines plans to take the story next. The current batch of foes is left defeated or destroyed by the end of EX-HEROES, so I can only imagine that the story will go in an entirely new direction. I’m looking forward to more from Clines.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, Vol. 2: 2000-2010 by Peter Dendle

0786461632.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Horror films frequently come in waves. Over the course of the twentieth century we saw the emergence of the classics, the creature features, atomic horror, haunted houses and ghost stories, alien invasions, werewolves, vampires (reemerging in several waves), slasher flicks, torture porn and body horror, etc. For the last decade or so, zombies have been one of the biggest things in horror films, possibly the most prevalent kind of horror in 2000s. I’m not sure if they will maintain their staying power – I noticed the prevalence of zombie films starting to dwindle in this year’s horror film festival circuit – but their influence and near omnipresence is undeniable.

This is actually Dendle’s second zombie film encyclopedia. The first volume covers the zombie film genre from its infancy in the 1930s through 1999. That a second volume was needed to cover just the first decade of the twenty-first century is a testament to the veritable explosion of zombie-related films in the new millennium. The encyclopedia obviously contains all the major zombie films of the decade: LAND OF THE DEAD, DIARY OF THE DEAD, and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD by Romero; 28 DAYS LATER and 28 WEEKS LATER; SHAUN OF THE DEAD; ZOMBIELAND, etc., as well as a host of smaller, low-budget, and direct-to-video films, along with a bunch I suspect most of us would be hard pressed to ever locate. This is a truly comprehensive guide. I cannot claim that it literally contains EVERY zombie film made anywhere in the world during the 2000s, and neither does Dendle. I will say this though: I couldn’t think of a single zombie film Dendle overlooked and I’m a big fan of the genre who sees quite a lot of indie films at film festivals and the like. If this collection is actually missing any relevant films, I didn’t notice the omission. There’s even a meaty appendix that provides brief descriptions and analysis of all the zombie shorts (i.e., non-feature films) for the period.

As with any good movie encyclopedia, I was inspired to seek out a number of films I had not yet run across, including both PONTYPOOL, a Canadian film with an odd name about survivors of a zombie apocalypse trapped in a radio station, and [REC], a Spanish film about a group of apartment dwellers trapped inside an apartment building with a bunch of zombies as filmed by one of those trapped. Dendle actually profiled a large number of films I plan to check out, so the encyclopedia was certainly useful from that perspective.

There were a couple points in the text where I thought I could have done with fewer political interjections and criticisms, but I suppose given that the period covered was the first decade of the twenty-first century, I should have expected as much. I did come to enjoy Dendle’s analysis of the films as well as his wry cynicism. At times though, it’s clear that Dendle is almost weary of his subject. I suspect the poor man has simply seen far too many crappy zombie flicks in too rapid a succession.

If you are a fan of recent zombie films – and there are still good ones being made, despite the saturation of the market with all things zombie – then this will serve as an excellent guide. Production values are very high with this volume, and it’s both attractively laid out and very sturdy. For a reference guide like this one, a hardcover format is almost required, as I have far too many similar reference works in flimsy paperback format. More movie stills would have been nice – and color ones especially so – but I understand that their inclusion would have exploded the cost of the book. Dendle’s second volume does exactly what it says it will do: it examines all the zombie films (in detail) from the last decade. If you’re looking for a reference work that does that, you can’t go wrong here.

Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers
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Book Review: The Dead Sheriff: Zombie Damnation by Mark Justice

0984880011.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_I don’t typically read westerns. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually read an entire western novel. But I could tell from the title – THE DEAD SHERIFF: ZOMBIE DAMNATION – that Mark Justice’s new novel was no ordinary western, so I gave it a try. I’m glad I did.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

There’s a new lawman roaming the Wild West and he’s not your typical sheriff. In fact, he’s a reanimated corpse wearing what seems to be a magical talisman. He’s also merciless killer: the Dead Sheriff’s idea of justice is for evil-doers to pay for their crimes with their lives. He’s not just a rotting corpse, he also seems to be mostly invulnerable to bullets and other damage. Sure, you can shoot him and knock him down, but he’ll get back up and finish the job in short order. The eponymous “Dead Sheriff” is accompanied by a mysterious young Indian named Cheveyo. I’m not going to give away one of the main surprises in the novel – it comes about a third of the way through – but suffice it to say that there’s a good deal more going on with the eponymous Dead Sheriff and his companion than initially meets the eye. The sheriff and his companion are accompanied by the novel’s viewpoint character, Richard O’Malley, a Boston reporter who – intrigued by wire reports about a dead man killing criminals – has traveled out west to see what’s really going on. O’Malley is a bit of a hapless cipher, and while he doesn’t detract from the novel, he doesn’t add much either. Oddly enough, he’s probably the weakest character in the novel. Corrupt televangelists apparently weren’t just a problem during the 1980s; here we also have a disreputable preacher, Reverend Ludlow Skaggs (what a great name!) as the primary villain of the piece. Skaggs is backed by an army of brutal thugs who have helped him take over a town called Damnation. Like all good westerns, there’s a climactic and highly satisfying showdown between the Dead Sheriff and the villain, as well as a number of great action sequences and gun battles throughout the novel.

I was especially intrigued by the future volumes to the series that the author promises in an Afterword. There he briefly mentions crazed cannibal brothers, a traveling vampire bordello, a posse made of other masked vigilantes, a time traveler, and the talisman’s original owner and his demonic sidekick – how can you go wrong with any of those? There are a number of mysteries remaining unresolved in DEAD SHERIFF, and the basic premise still has a great deal of potential. I had not previously come across any of Mark Justice’s work, but on further examination, he’s a relatively prolific author, so I’m looking forward to checking out his other work. Justice has definitely got a way with words, and is able to infuse action with just the right mix of dark humor.

Strongly recommended, especially for fans of the “Weird West” who enjoy some supernatural elements mixed in with their westerns, and those looking for a highly atypical zombie novel. This is a fast-paced, highly cinematic, pulpy supernatural western with a great premise. I look forward to more from Mark Justice.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture, edited by by Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz

This is a collection of eighteen scholarly essays, plus a meaty introduction by the editors, that explore the theme of the zombie in books, films, and popular culture. I should clarify at the outset that these essays are not for the literary faint-of-heart: if you are not comfortably steeped in postmodern literary theories, then you might want to reconsider investing in this collection, or at least resign yourself to finding some essays less legible than others.

I found some of the essays to be extremely thought-provoking. “Zombies as Internal Fear or Threat” by the redoubtable Kim Paffenroth was particularly interesting and well put together. Two pieces that explore the early history of the zombie in the American zeitgeist (“White Zombie and the Creole: William Seabrook’s The Magic Island and American Imperialism in Haiti” by Gyllian Phillips and “The Origin of the Zombie in American Radio and Film: B-Horror, U.S. Empire, and the Politics of Disavowal” by Chris Vials) were equally fascinating, but then again I am a historian who studies ideas of empire and imperialism in this particular period in U.S. history. Like most edited collections of essays, some of the essays are a bit more immediately useful or interesting than others. Some of the essays went a bit too far into the deepest depths of literary criticism, even for me. “Rhetoric Goes Boom(er): Agency, Networks, and Zombies at Play” by Scott Reed and “Ztopia: Lessons in Post-Vital Politics in George Romero’s Zombie Films” by Tyson E. Lewis were, I thought, two of the essays that lent themselves least well to ease of comprehension by most readers. Several of the essays were also too loosely connected to the central idea of the zombie to fit neatly into a collection like this. Andrea Austin’s “Cyberpunk and the Living Dead” stretches the definition of “zombie” a bit far for my tastes, and I was surprised to find that two pieces (offered comparisons between the late, great John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and zombies. I must confess that such a comparison would have never occurred to me, so at least these pieces were thought-provoking, if not entirely convincing.

Recommended for those with a literary or scholarly bent and a strong interest in zombie fiction or zombie-esque themes in literature. If you’re a casual fan of zombie films or horror fiction, you’ll find these essays mostly too jargon-laden or tendentious (which isn’t to say that they’re at all uninteresting, just that I don’t assess they will be of interest to typical lay readers).

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Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers