The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beat the common cold. But in doing so we created something new, something terrible that no one could stop. The infection spread, virus blocks taking over bodies and minds with one, unstoppable command: FEED.
NOW, twenty years after the Rising, Georgia and Shaun Mason are on the trail of the biggest story of their lives-the dark conspiracy behind the infected. The truth will out, even if it kills them.
(Buckle up! It's another unfavorable review. I'm sorry. I'll try to read something I'll react to more positively, next time. I promise, I'm not purposely picking books I know I won't love; I'm just awfully picky, I guess... Or let's say I have "very discriminating taste", shall we?)
I started reading this novel expecting much more than it was able to deliver. Honestly, I'm surprised by the high reviews it's received. Not that it's an absolutely dreadful book-- it has enough going for it to avoid that designation-- but it's just not outstanding. I mean, this novel made it onto an audience-picked "Top 100 Killer Thrillers" list (hosted by NPR, if you're interested). It's number 74 on the list, and sadly, it doesn't deserve that spot. (But then again, I'm sure many others on the list don't, either. We have The Da Vinci Code at number 6, for example.)
Don't read this novel if you want a "traditional" zombie story; here, the zombies are in the background-- an established fact of life-- and the real focus is on a rag-tag team of journa-bloggers covering a political campaign. That's right-- it's got politics. It's also about relationships-- particularly the incredibly strong bond between an adoptive brother and sister (Shaun and Georgia-- aka George). That might not sound too bad (though not what you expect if you think you're in for a zombie novel)-- and parts of it aren't-- but there's plenty of room for improvement. (I'll go into lots of disjointed detail below.)
Some reviewers note that the story picks up its pace toward the end of the novel, the first in a trilogy. Personally, I'm not sure that it's enough. I'll probably at least start the second novel, eventually, but if it's not significantly more interesting in very short order, I doubt I'll invest more time in the series.
My (Less Spoilery) Observations (Okay, Mostly Gripes):
• Blogging has made a big comeback, in the future, serving as what many view as the most reliable source of news and entertainment. I have no trouble believing that traditional media failed to meet the needs of the public during the first outbreaks, but I don't like the way "old-fashioned" blogging is described: "Before then, blogging was something people thought should be done by bored teenagers talking about how depressed they were. Some folks used it to report on politics and the news, but that application was widely viewed as reserved for conspiracy nuts and people whose opinions were too vitriolic for the mainstream." Um, okay... Maybe ten or fifteen years ago.
• Then there's the doctor from the CDC who "violated national security to post details on the infection on his eleven-year-old daughter's blog. Twenty-five years after the fact his words-- simple, bleak, and unforgiving against their background of happy teddy bears-- still send shivers down my spine." So... This is 2014 (if I remember correctly), and the brilliant doctor at the CDC can't find a better way of distributing his vital, potentially life-saving information than on his 11-year-old daughter's blog? Who does he think reads that? Fewer than twenty other 11-year-olds, most likely. Not the best way to spread the word far and wide.
• Georgia is supposed to be a relatively "straight-news" person, I think, and yet pretty much every snippet from her news blog is nothing more than her opinions. At one point, she crescendos a snippet by describing another character as "a man who seems most likely to escalate the unending conflict between us and the infected into a state of all-out war". Yes, very unbiased.
• It seems more than a little silly that the young seem to dominate the news-blogging techie world. This is set around 2039/2040. A man who's 30 in 2012 will be 57 in 2039. So why aren't there more people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s doing techie-blogger stuff? It's bizarre that it's so youth-centric. Or do people magically lose their tech savvy if they've lived through the zombocalypse?
• There is way too much repetition of and reference to a few things: security measures, blood tests/testing units, and Georgia's "retinal KA"/sunglasses. I think I'm an expert on all three, now. I get that they were important elements of the story-- and in the case of the first two, the world as a whole-- but at some point, you don't need to explain every little thing. People tend to remember after the hundredth time something's described.
• Speaking of the blood tests-- I guess the number of them indicates the degree to which people have given up their freedom... and their level of terror-- but good grief. There are so many of them, and some of them are so redundant. You have to take a test to leave a hotel? You have to take a test when you enter a garage... and another to enter the elevator just a few steps away? And another to exit the elevator?? Why not just have everyone fitted with a permanent testing unit/monitor that performs a scan at regular intervals? Hey, I know! It attaches to the base of the skull, and as soon as amplification is detected, it shoots a tiny but strategically placed blade through the brain or spine. Great idea, huh? ;o)
• Inconsistencies. There were too many of them. For instance: We're told that the gutsy bloggers of the world are the ones who go out to eat in restaurants, visit theme parks, etc., making it sound like most people just hole themselves up in their homes as much as possible. (Which, if 87% of the population is unwilling to leave their homes, how can restaurants and theme parks-- of all things-- afford to stay open? Basic economics fail, as they say.) Later, there are huge gatherings of people and references to the fact that Sacramento resents the Bay Area because (among other things) it gets "the big tourism dollars". Um, excuse me, but how in the world are there "big tourism dollars" anywhere, if 87% of people are nervous about going out for supper at a local restaurant?
• More inconsistencies. At one point, Georgia says that "there have been no indications that infected individuals are capable of emotions as complex as hate. Further, they're not dead. If rights end where the grave begins, shouldn't they be protected by law like any other citizen?" So, she's going to fight for the rights of the undead? I get the impression it's more about her dislike of Tate than Zombie's Rights. And then, later on, there's a reference to the danger of Tate "escalating the unending conflict between us and the infected into a state of all-out war". ...But how can there be war when one side is a group of "people" unable to feel or think like people? Makes no sense. Later, we read that "a fresh mob wants to infect, not devour," and throughout the book it's suggested that the virus itself is somehow guiding the actions of the infected. ("Once the virus is awake, you cease to be 'you'"... blah blah blah... "The zombie is a creature with two goals: to feed the virus in itself, and to spread that virus to others." So why in the world does she defend them against Tate? Why argue semantics-- whether or not the zombie can "hate"? Why does she make it sound like the infected should have more rights, when the conscious person-- the soul-- has already gone, leaving nothing but a vessel for the virus? It's just crazy.
• In the first pages of the novel, we are introduced to the way this zombie virus works, and we learn that when zombies get into larger groups, they are automatically, immediately more... intelligent, I guess you would say. Pack intelligence is an interesting and new (to me) aspect in zombie tales, but I'm not sure how logical it is. (And yes, looking for logic in zombie novels is probably an illogical thing to do.)
• The nod to George Romero's zombie movies is amusing... as is the inclusion of a character who calls herself "Buffy". The reference to T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland", however, seems awfully contrived. (Or maybe I'm just jaundiced because I didn't enjoy being made to read it in high school.)
• Semi-modern slang such as "'Sup" (short for "What's up") and "'rents" ("parents") has survived into the late 2030's/early 2040's. It's amazing(ly irritating)! It's bad enough that I have to hear it now; must we be burdened with the thought that it might still be in use that far into the future? How in heck does "'rents" survive the zombie apocalypse?
• Buffy reminds me of Luna Lovegood, but without quite so much daydreamy vagueness. Even the description of some of her clothes-- broomstick skirts... tie-dyed leggings... knee-length glitter tunic... star-and-moon hologram hair clips.
• You'll be happy to note that Craigslist survives the zombocaplypse.
• "Poultry and fish are safe, but a lot of people avoid them anyway. Something about the act of eating flesh makes them uncomfortable." Ooh, more people turning into vegetarians. I'm sure that reading that makes some people's day.
• Does the author have something against Texas? Georgia describes it as "a state famed for its belligerence, hostility, and political instability". Sure, I assume that's the Texas of the future, but still...
• "He is, in short, a politician who understands that the dead are the dead, the living are the living, and we need to treat both with equal care." ...What does that even mean?
• There were a few times when Americans used British slang-- like "full stop" instead of "period". Odd-- especially since the author is American.
• Apparently Apple is still around... making top-of-the-line blood testing units, of course.
• There are blood testing units on the entries of vehicles (and homes and most other buildings), right? Wouldn't that be kind of dangerous if you were seeking speedy refuge during an outbreak? These blood tests must result in a lot of unnecessary infections.
• The fact that large mammals can be infected is an interesting touch, but I don't think there are many viruses that affect all or even most mammals, so it seems far-fetched. (Which is entirely relative, considering that this is a zombie novel.)
• The repeated use of the word "folks" drives me crazy. Politicians definitely do (over)use that word, but good grief. Give us a little variety! Besides, the politicians weren't the only ones "folks"-ing left and right.
• The senator from Wisconsin refers to our intrepid trio of bloggers as "a bunch of Bay Area blogger kids", which struck me as odd. Would a Wisconsin senator use "Bay Area" to describe them? Seems like a descriptor a Californian-- or at most a West Coaster-- would think to use. (Maybe I'm being a tad too picky here. I was increasingly bored and/or irritated when I made these notes...)
• Even if it's not mentioned, just assume that Georgia raises one or both eyebrows every fifth page. She occasionally spices things up by putting her hand up in the "stop" position. Meanwhile, Shaun's go-to response is a mocking salute that somehow manages never to look ridiculous or rude, or something.
• Georgia "has" to wear heels to the party? She describes her dress and adds that "situations that call for me to wear it almost invariably require hose and heels." Require. Must be some post-zombocalypse law, 'cause the last time I checked, you could wear flats or even dressy sandals to even a fancy par-tay. Believe it or not, they won't shoot you on sight if you're not in stilettos. Sensible shoes, gals; it's the way to go-- especially after zombies take over large parts of the world.
• I don't think this is marketed as a YA novel (and there are aspects of it that might explain that-- language, violence-- not that those seem to matter, these days), but most of it has that vibe. Not a judgement; just an observation.
• I think this is one of those stories that would be better as a movie than as a book. I would rather have watched than read it.
• "If you want an easy job-- if you want the sort of job where you never have to bury somebody who you care about-- I recommend you pursue a career in whatever strikes your fancy... just so long as it isn't the news." Oh, gag. Seriously? Let's glorify journalism!! Hurray for journalism!! Because it's the most important, dangerous job in the world! Soldiers, police (and other law enforcement), firefighters, etc. never die in the line of duty, obviously.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW:
• For a while, I wondered if there would be some sort of romantic development between Shaun and Georgia. (Hey, they're not related by blood!) There was just such an odd dynamic between the two of them... Very touchy-feely.
• I found the presentation of religion and the Republican party annoying. I was initially pleased when it seemed that there was going to be a "reasonable" Republican candidate-- one of the good guys and a Republican! What novelty (in a modern novel)! But gradually it became obvious that Senator Ryman was less a conservative than a RINO. He's even described at one point as a "moderate leaning toward liberal"! What a let-down, that even this novel's Republican candidate couldn't be a real conservative. Then there's stuff like this: "...half the party has embraced the idea that the living dead are a punishment from God and we poor sinners must do 'penance' before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven..." and "Would he bow to the religious nuts who have been taking over more and more of the party in recent years?" Really? *sigh*
• "Where did the senator stand on the death penalty? Given that most corpses tended to get up and try to eat folks, he didn't see it as a productive pursuit. What was his opinion on public health care? Failure to keep people healthy enough to stay alive bordered on criminal negligence." (And on and on.)
Basically, it felt like the author used Senator Ryman (and the novel as a whole) to present several of her own political opinions-- and some of the logic just doesn't make a lot of sense. "If you're killing someone for the crime of killing people, doesn't it sort of contradict the spirit of the thing if their corpse is going to get up and immediately start killing more people?" Uh... except in this world, people turn into a zombie when they die, no matter how they die (as long as the brain is intact). So... if you let the death row inmates die of natural causes, they're still going to have to be "put down" when they reanimate (or prior to reanimation). Only in that case, you might not know they're about to die and reanimate, whereas if you execute them, you can be ready for reanimation-- or just choose a method of execution that precludes reanimation altogether. It's an extremely weak argument against the death penalty.
• So we have Ryman, Mr. Ideal, who is a "moderate with liberal leanings"-- and the only other Republican candidates I recall are a woman who's basically a media whore who'll do almost anything for publicity and Governor Tate, the far-right ("Bible-thumping") religious nut. Of course. He has a military background. (Ooh, sinister.) He's pro-gun and anti-abortion. So, duh, he's evil and insane.
• Now for more on the religion issue. For a while, I was interested by the more philosophical approach to zombies. But it gets old after a bit-- especially when there's a religious nutcase (Governor Tate, aka one of the Bad Guys). And then there's Buffy. She's described as being so religious. She says grace before meals. She prays before going to sleep. She attends church regularly (before going on the road). And yet she is the one character who believes in ghosts (???), writes porn, has premarital sex-- and eventually turns into a traitor, when someone takes advantage of her weakness and her religious beliefs. One big fat UGH.
• When it was "revealed" that Tate was one of the Bad Guys, I was SO SHOCKED! I nearly fell out of my chair, you guys! I mean, like, who saw that coming, right? ;o) Ok, maybe it wasn't meant to be shocking. The fact that it was "revealed" with about a quarter of the book still to go might be an indication that the author knew it was painfully obvious that Tate was Evil.
• The whole "listening in on Tate" scene-- what he said and the way he phrased it-- smacked of an old episode of Scooby-Doo and the de-masking scene (every episode had one!) in which the Evil-Doer goes on about "those meddling kids and their dog". Heh. And Tate is just about as nuanced as those cartoon villains, too, I'm afraid.
• So, let me set the scene. The major characters are listening to the feed from a bug. Tate (a Bad Guy) is saying some very self-incriminating things. And then the author hits us with this: "Unaware that he was being listened to, Tate continued:..." My mouth probably fell open at this point. Yeah, it's kind of insulting that she thought her readers weren't smart enough to have figured that out on their own. She had to spell it out for us. Sheesh.
• I'd suspected that Georgia was going to die, just about the time that she said that she "knew" Shaun was going to die someday, and she'd have to do this or that. (I was still illogically kind of surprised when it actually happened-- but there you have it. I'm always surprised when a writer kills off a main character, even when I've predicted it.) So, maybe we were supposed to know she was going to die. If not, then there's a bit of a boo-boo when a chapter begins with a snippet Georgia wrote that is credited not to her news blog, but to something called "Postcards from the Wall, the unpublished files of Georgia Mason".
• I snorted when I read that part of the Bad Guy Contingent is... ready? ...the Tobacco Companies!! (dun! Dun! DUN!!) I expect it will come into play in the second or third novel. So far all we know is that the "tobacco companies"-- that's as specific as it gets-- are involved, along with the CDC. I'm just waiting for The Oil Companies to be unmasked as more Bad Guys.
Something I Actually Liked:
• "This is the truth: We are a nation accustomed to being afraid. If I'm being honest, not just with you but with myself, it's not just the nation, and it's not just something we've grown used to. It's the world, and it's an addiction. People crave fear. Fear justifies everything. Fear makes it okay to have surrendered freedom after freedom, until our every move is tracked and recorded in a dozen databases the average man will never have access to. Fear creates, defines, and shapes our world, and without it, most of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves. Our ancestors dreamed of a world without boundaries, while we dream new boundaries to put around our homes, our children, and ourselves. We limit our potential day after day in the name of a safety that we refuse to ever achieve. We took a world that was huge with possibility, and we made it as small as we could."
All in all, I certainly won't be reading this one again, and I probably wouldn't have read it the first time around, if I'd known how little I'd enjoy it.