I first heard about this book through a tweet from Joss Whedon calling it one of the best books he’d read recently. Since I’m a giant fan of Whedon’s writing, I trust his instincts on the subject. I promptly hopped on my library’s website and went to request a copy. That’s when I figured out that the book wasn’t even out yet and I cursed that I haven’t figured out how these ARC/early reader copies work (I still don’t know). But, that was when I discovered that I can request that they order in a book! I’ve taken advantage of that since – with great success. They’ve ordered every book I’ve suggested. So, request completed, now I just have to wait for the book to come in. And wait. And wait. And wait. I got the we’ll order this in February. The library received the actual book a couple weeks ago.
So, now that I’ve waited months to read this thing, I figure out it’s a zombie novel. Uh… I’m not a fan of zombie stuff. Basic zombie storyline – humans ‘ack, the zombies are chasing us’ running ‘oh good, we can hide here’ hiding ‘uh oh, here they are again’ repeat. I find the stories boring – especially in movie format. Now what? Well, World War Z (the book) was actually pretty good and the reviews of this thing are better than decent. Well, I may not be a convert, but this book was totally worth the wait.
If you’re planning to read this book, stop here! Read no further! Go read the book and then come back.
The plot is pretty simple. The world is in chaos after a pathogen has taken over most of the population. It’s a dangerous place to live. A small group of people are trying to survive and are forced out of their safe location. The characters are what make this novel great. They are complex and deep and you care about all of them.
Right off the bat, you know this isn’t going to be your typical story. Melanie is a ten-year-old girl at a special school where she lives in a locked room, goes to class strapped into a wheelchair, and is fed once a week before being doused in chemical spray. We quickly discover that Melanie and the other students are the zombies -or Hungries as they’re called here- and they’re being studied but the people teaching them. Melanie is the best student in the program. She absorbs information and makes connections and develops theories. She’s even able to form relationships – especially with Ms. Justineau who she loves and Sargent Parks who she hates. Her favourite story is Pandora and she’s obsessed with Greek mythology. And there’s the tie-in with the title. She is gifted, but for one major flaw. This is not your typical zombie, and that’s exactly why Dr. Caldwell is studying her and the others like her. She thinks that if she can figure out why these kids don’t turn immediately into the single minded hungries that have pretty much destroyed the world.
Here’s one of the things I liked about this book. It’s not a pathogen of unknown origin that’s causing the infection. It’s not a weird flu. It’s a fungus type thing that has crossed the species line. It’s interesting, seems scientifically sound, and grosses me the eff out. Especially once the bodies start sprouting trees with hanging spore spheres. Blech. Easily the grossest part of the book. So, Caldwell knows what’s causing the infection; her goal is to figure out how to make people better. She’s been trying if years and not getting anywhere. Melanie is her golden ticket. She’s literally about to slice open her scalp when the Hungries take the base. It’s dramatic.
Caldwell’s biggest obstacle is Justineau. Melanie’s favourite teacher. The relationship between Justineau and Melanie is the cornerstone of the entire book. A relationship that blindsides both of them. Justineau when she realizes that she doesn’t just see Melanie as a Student, but as someone she genuinely cares about. Melanie has always loved her teacher, but the first time she experiences the hunger, she knows that there is something about her that’s not right. She is struggling with her identity. Trying to figure out who she is and how she can ever survive outside of the base. She’s eventually able to control her hungry. Something no other Hungry has exhibited before.
But it’s also possible that she is the key to reversing the virus. This dilemma drives basically all of the action in the novel. Should Caldwell be able to kill someone who is perceptive and thriving for a potentially universal benefit? At what point does the solution become worse than the cause? For Caldwell, the answer is never. There is only one goal – find a cure. If people have to die along the way, they have to die. The ends will always justify the means. For Justineau, the answer is always. The children are children, not monsters. Using then for lab research is the same as murder. For Parks, the distinction changes. At the beginning, he doesn’t care. He does his job: he catches the kids; delivers them for research; takes them to classes; gives them to Caldwell when she requests them. But, he doesn’t stick around to see what she does. He is freaked right out by the kids, especially Melanie. His opinion starts to change as they travel to Beacon and Melanie consistently steps in and saves them. He comes to understand that she is more than a hungry. She is a sentient being.
Ethics are at the centre of everything. Everyone’s beliefs are challenged. Even Caldwell’s. When she finally figures out why these children are different and realizes that there is no possible cure for epidemic, she finally gives in. She stops insisting that they make it back to safety, because safety cannot exist. When she explains this to Melanie, the young girl knows there is only one solution. Everyone who is still fully human has to be infected and she and the other children like her must be civilized in order to create a new type of society. She tricks Parks into helping her release the spores. This isn’t your typical happy ending. There’s no wrap up resolution for our heroes. Everyone dies except for Melanie, the hungry kids, and Mrs. Justineau, who must now exist as the last living human and teach the kids in order to allow them to survive. Was Melanie any worse than Caldwell? She made a decision because she thought it was the best for everyone. Again, do the ends justify the means?
Read it! Just do it. It’s a quick easy read but totally worth the time.
*The author is apparently a renowned comic writer. He wrote the stuff that was turned into Constantine, which was totally enjoyable. I don’t know who he is, but for people in the know, this might be more enticement to get off your keester, and then back on it, and read this book.