by M.R. Carey
Melanie is a very special girl. Dr. Caldwell calls her "our little genius."
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.
Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children's cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she'll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn't know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.
I'm not sure how much I can say without giving away some of the story. When Donald mentioned the book to me (having seen someone else raving about it), he inadvertently told me something that technically is a spoiler, though I've seen reviews that assume everyone knows that particular spoiler or will pick up on it so quickly that it's not worth bothering about. All the same, I'll try to avoid giving anything away until the "spoiler" section below.
Though I have a few quibbles to address (see the spoiler section), I did enjoy The Girl With All the Gifts and found it engrossing. Even if science-fiction horror isn't your usual genre, this might be worth a try. There's world-building, cinematic writing, character development, a coming-of-age story, a few truly creepy moments, and just enough action without bogging down into the endless "then he did this, then she did that, then there was a massive explosion, and blah blah blah" that puts me to sleep. It's a carefully balanced blend that works very well.
Though the main character is a pre-teen girl (eleven years old or so?), this is most definitely not a book for children-- nor is it quite a high-brow, "literary" book. It falls somewhere in the sweet spot between highfalutin modern literature and pulp. This may be a page-turner, but there's also plenty of "mental meat" (eww...) to chew on long after you've finished reading.
Recommended! (Just be aware that violence and adult language and themes do pop up, from time to time. Again, it's not ideal for younger readers.)
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Though I noticed before I began reading that the author was a man, I'd forgotten that by the time I got to the end of the book, and I found myself automatically referring to the author as a "she". This may simply be a reflection of the fact that most of the central characters are female, but I think it also means that Carey writes from a female perspective with greater than usual skill (for a man ;o)).
--True to the genre, the author has come up with his own word for zombies. "Hungries". It's one of the better alternative monikers I've come across-- vaguely sinister-sounding, gets the point across very succinctly, and highlights the scariest thing about zombies.
--Generally, I prefer slower, shuffling zombies. (It just makes sense to me-- and it's sooo important that things "make sense" in zombie stories, you know-- that a reanimated dead body would be fairly sluggish in its movements and rate of speed. But to each her own!) That's a small complaint, though, and it's something I didn't have much trouble overlooking, in this book. Though I'm not crazy about fast zombies (maybe because it makes them just too powerful), I did like the fact that these zombies freeze and stand statue-still when not in active pursuit of food. That does make sense. Why would the fungus have them waste energy by roaming endlessly about, to no purpose?
--There's a fair amount of time and energy devoted to the explanation of (and further investigation into) the cause of this version of the zombie apocalypse-- including how these zombies "work" and the survival tricks the living employ (e-blocker, slow movements, etc.). The concept of a "zombie fungus" is intriguing-- all the more so because of its basis in reality. The science never gets technical enough to lose the reader (or his interest), but there's enough detail to make it feel real.
--The first part of the book, before the junker attack, is excellently creepy and unsettling. One of the few weak points is the striking coincidence that the junker attack just happens to come at the perfect moment for saving Melanie's life...
--Melanie. It's impossible not to grow fond of her, early in the book-- even though I tend to picture her as looking like Rhoda from The Bad Seed. (g) Gallagher's description of her is pretty accurate: "He's not sure what she's like. A live girl, maybe, dressed up as a hungry. But not even that. An adult, dressed as a kid, dressed as a hungry." Melanie would never have been a normal child, under any circumstances.
--One thing that doesn't quite make sense to me is that no-one, neither the teachers nor the researchers, noticed that the hungry kids were growing, in captivity on the base. I can't remember for certain, but wasn't Melanie there for at least a year or two? That would be long enough to notice some growth, in a child of that age. If nothing else, her hair and nails were growing. (We know that her hair grows back after Caldwell shaves her head, so her hair must've been growing all that time before, too.)
Maybe they had some explanation for it, but in my mind, if you're dead-- even a member of the reanimated dead-- your hair won't grow back/keep growing. Even if they did explain that away, somehow, I don't think they could come up with a logical explanation for the children visibly aging over the course of a year or more. Surely that's the type of thing that a scientist would chart and notice.
I suppose the reason for all this is that it was more exciting and worked better for the plot to have no-one realize (until near the end) that the children were still growing and "alive" in some way, unlike the first-generation hungries. Somehow, they kept track of the kids' mental and psychological development, but failed to notice any physical changes. It seems a little sloppy, but I'm not sure how it could've been handled better, so I try to overlook it.
--One of my pet peeves in zombie books is people getting drunk. I just don't get it. "Hey, we're in a high-risk situation where we might need to mobilize or defend ourselves at a moment's notice, but we just found some booze, so let's get blitzed. We won't even bother designating someone to stay sober for the greater good. Booze all round!" Considering how people behave, I guess it's probably more realistic than I want to believe.
--I get frustrated with Justineau, at times...
--And I was frustrated with Gallagher, in his last moments. Are we supposed to be struck by the nobility of his sacrifice? His unwillingness to hurt the hungry kids? Remember, he doesn't know they're the next generation of... "humans". For all he knows, they're just monsters that are going to kill him painfully, and then maybe go after the rest of this group, too. And yet he just can't bring himself to let them die-- even as just a side effect of his own "exit". ...I must be a bad person, because reading in that moment, I wouldn't have minded having the lot of them destroyed by a grenade. I like Melanie, but not these wild hungry kids. Clearly, I'm awful, because in his place, I would probably have killed them without a qualm. (~shrug~ You've been warned; keep your wild, cannibalistic kids away from me, because I will not be eaten alive, if I have another option.)
--We never do find out what happened to Beacon. Is it still standing? Has it been over-run? Or is Parks correct in his optimistic suggestion that the tower was relocated? (Doubtful.) We'll never know! I guess it doesn't matter, given the end of the book. Anyone who's still alive is doomed, anyway. ~sunshine and flowers!!~ ;o)
--The Ophiocordyceps wall/forest is an eerie image-- especially when Melanie goes on her stroll through it. The forest of fungal "trees" would translate very well to the screen.
--Melanie: "The wild children are just the same as she is, except that they never got to have lessons with Miss Justineau. Nobody ever taught them how to think for themselves, or even how to be people, but they're learning without that help. They've already learned how to be a family."
Me: Well, ok... I guess there's some sense in what you say, even though those kids are creepy as all get-out.
Melanie: "And then Dr Caldwell comes and kills them as though they're just animals. Maybe they tried to kill her first, but they don't know any better and Dr Caldwell does."
Me: Yeah, Dr. Caldwell is awful-- no argument there-- but I hope you aren't suggesting that no-one has the right to protect themselves from these monster-kids, just because they don't realize the error of their ways..."
Melanie: "It fills Melanie with a rage so strong it's almost like the hungry feeling. And discovering that she can feel like that makes her afraid."
Me: ~backs away slowly~ ...I think I liked you better back before you "found yourself".
--Ok. We have the big reveal that the hungry kids are the product of zombie sex. (Hey, don't blame me! It's in the book!) My question is this: How come there are only "second-gen" hungry kids? The zombocalypse happened at least twenty-ish years ago, and we can probably assume that there's been zombie sex from the beginning (because why would there not?), so shouldn't there at least be some older-teen "living-hungries"? (That brings me to another question. Are the hungry kids technically dead or not? I guess they're dead, because surely Caldwell would've noticed if they had even the faintest pulse. It doesn't make sense, but then, neither does it make sense that two dead parents could create a child, so...)
But back to my original question. Why are there no 19- or 18-year-old hungry "kids"? Hmmm?
--Ugh, Justineau shouts at Parks not to kill the hungry kids as the two of them run for their lives! Oh, please. "No, not the zombie children!! They're only trying to eat us alive, Parks, you brute! Have you no feelings?!" Poor Parks. I feel for the guy.
--So Melanie (with help from the unwitting Parks) fulfills her role as the post-apocalyptic Pandora, unleashing Ophiocordyceps spores upon the world at large, infecting every living human who breathes the air-- dooming them and clearing the way for a rising race of human-fungus symbiotes/whatevers.
Her rationalization: She does it "because of the children. The children like her-- the second generation. There's no cure for the hungry plague, but in the end the plague becomes its own cure. It's terribly, terribly sad for the people who get it first, but their children will be okay and they'll be the ones who live and grow up and have children of their own and make a new world."
Essentially, she's killing the old race of man because they can't be trusted to behave properly. They'll end up killing one another (and the hungries) until there's no-one left to repopulate the world. This way, with only hungries around, the hungry kids will take their rightful place: "They'll be the next people. The ones who make everything okay again."
Yeah... I see where you're coming from, Melanie, but it's easier to be all la-di-da about the extinction of the original human race when you're a member of the group of special Chosen Ones. Also, Melanie tends to oversimplify things a bit, imho. But whatever. To be fair, it was only a matter of time, anyway. There was no way the few remaining people could've "gotten rid of" all those spores. Eventually they would be released into the atmosphere. She just hurried the process along a little. :o/
--Is Justineau "lucky" or would she have been better off dead? She has no choice but to spend the rest of her days teaching hungry kids. I mean, sure, she's got Melanie, whom she loves... She'll be the one who helps shape the "next people", through her teachings. If they adapt well, the new class of hungry kids will grow dear to her-- but she will always be alone, in some very basic, important ways-- and she'll have to rely on Melanie's protection from the
...I think I'll go outside and enjoy the non-zombie-infested garden and breathe in the nice, fresh, non-sporified air. Ahhh, life!