Archive for the ‘Post Apocalyptic’ Category

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There are times when comfort, familiarity and ease are, actually, exactly what you need; at other times, by all means, challenge me, make me confront my preconceptions, subvert my genres in different ways. When I’m tired, poorly and stressed, however, enfold me in familiar settings, tropes and – hell, yes – even the comfort of overused clichés.

And, that is broadly speaking what The Boy on the Bridge, Carey’s prequel to The Girl With All The Gifts, offers.

Having read the original, the concept of the world in which the Cordyceps fungus has infected the human race, creating the familiar post-apocalyptic environment of zombie hungries, plucky scientists and gung-ho soldiers. Carey’s tale occurs ten years after the fungus pathogen emerged, turning the majority of the population into “hungries”, motivated purely by a desire to eat fresh raw meat and with enhanced speed, strength and endurance. It takes place in a Britain where London has fallen and humanity has retreated to the coastal defences of Beacon or has become “junkers”, marauding through the ravaged landscape stealing, raping and turning cannibalistic. All of which, however, is very much in the background: just like the original novel, Carey focuses on a small group of people, in this case, a team of scientists, accompanied by a team of soldiers, who are travelling the length of Britain in the Rosaline Franklin, which is essentially the bastard child of a tank and a science lab and a submarine. The purpose of the journey is a little weak – ostensibly to collect samples left in a variety of places and to perform a range of dissections – but is really just to isolate a group of characters in a hostile environment.

And who do we have in the field? Colonel Carlisle, an adherent to the military chain of command who clashed with the authorities in Beacon before the novel; McQueen, the trigger happy rebellious soldier; Samrina Khan, a motherly and reasonable scientist; Steven Greaves, a child savant on the autistic spectrum; Dr Fournier, the cowardly and pusillanimous civilian commander, more than open to being manipulated by the powers back in Beacon. Plus a range of generally dispensible others. Had this been Star Trek, they’d have been in red shirts. Nothing original, nothing challenging and the trope of the genius autistic child is so overdone. Greaves is more credible and engaging that Wesley Crusher, – and has a more plausible conclusion – but only barely. Familiar enough tropes, rubbing against each other in ways which will be familiar to anyone used to film or television or comic books – a genre in which M. R. Carey writes. Conflict, betrayals, reconciliations and accommodations are made.

As readers of The Girl with All the Gifts will no doubt suspect, the Rosalind Franklin’s crew encounter a group of children, second generation hungries where an accommodation has evolved between the human and hungry: enhanced, hungry but also capable of thought and communication and social life. Conflict with the children becomes something else by the end of the novel and Carey successfully shifts our sympathies from humanity – who generally come across as venal, selfish and flawed – to the children… but that itself comes as no surprise to readers familiar with the first novel.

The strongest part of the novel, in my opinion, occurs in the Epilogue, twenty years after the main narrative and perhaps a decade after the events of The Girl with All the Gifts when Carlisle – now in a mountain fortress – confronts a cadre of children who have scaled the mountain in search of the last remnants of humanity. Led by a familiar character. I have to say, I was surprised by how effective that conclusion was.

Well played, Mike Carey. Well played.

 

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This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!

But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …

The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.

Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.

Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.

In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.

The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.

Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.

In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.

 

What’s the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat into the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.

Yup.
That is how bleak the world of this book is. Tragically, lyrically and devastatingly bleak, but bleak nonetheless. Nothing grows. Nothing lives. The world contains nothing of beauty or of value and very little of utilitarian use. Whilst the man and boy we follow are “good guys”, the rest of the world appears to consist of “bad guys” by which McCarthy means paedophiles, rapists, murderers and cannibals.

The story, such as it is, is ridiculously simple: a man and his son are walking south in search of something. This is narrative stripped bare, stripped to its literal bones. It has the sparseness of a fable or an allegory or a parable and puts me in mind of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress more than anything else.

The setting, however, is science fiction: a post-apocalyptic vision of hopelessness: animal and vegetable life appears to be devastated. The word “dead” occurs so frequently it would be easy to mock. The man and his son are

Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold….

The road crossed a dried slough where pipes of ice stood out of the frozen mud like formations in a cave. The remains of an old fire by the side of the road. Beyond that a long concrete causeway. A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss.

Again, for me, echoes abound, particularly of Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The man and boy are very literally walking through the shadow of the the valley of death. I’m not so naive and McCarthy’s not so pedestrian that you can see direct parallels but this novel in which the man and boy “carry the fire” is embedded in these narratives and lyrics of Christian pilgrimage and Christian faith. And it is through that fire that such a bleak novel lives on with such optimism and hope. Throughout the novel, the man’s faith is repeatedly rewarded by hidden caches of food or the remnants of an orchard.

The other story which echoes through my reading of The Road is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. The road itself as a symbol; the pair of travellers; the absurdity, beauty and pathos in their interactions.

But the novel goes beyond that Christianity and beyond the evocation of other texts. There is a deeply human relationship between the man and boy, full of the love and hope, the frustration and fear which is so recognisable. And almost unbearably painful: the man’s horror over the gauntness of his son, his sense of inadequacy trying to comfort him, the bleak practicality of his teaching his son how to shoot himself. There is never a shred of doubt that this father would die before allowing harm to come to his son; and would suffer worse than death to allow his son to escape suffering.

And his final words to his son. Oh god. As a dad, that final conversation was worth reading the whole book for. And all delivered in terse almost monosyllabic dialogue.
It can sometimes be hard to think of strong and positive father figures in literature (Atticus Finch, Jean Valjean excepted and I’m sure many others who haven’t come to mind yet…) so I notice them when I come across them. And strong father-son relationships seem even rarer.

Anyway, I digress…

The writing style of the novel is different to the traditional: the sentences are often fragmented and, when not, they are short and simple, only linking clauses together with coordinating conjunctions, the “and” echoing through the prose like the tired footfalls of the protagonists. There is extremely scant use of adverbs. The man and boy are never named. Apostrophes and dialogue markers are omitted sometimes.

I’m more sanguine about that that most of the commentators on Goodreads. The sentence structures work beautifully well and, as I’ve said, contribute to the lyricism in their sparseness. And, even if I mourn the absent apostrophes just a little, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful books around. A writer who can come up with this line

“If he is not the word of God God never spoke”

should not be criticised because some people would prefer a comma there.

Haunting. Beautiful. Muscular.


  Oh dear. 

I fear I’m going to be unpopular here because I’ve heard so much good about this book. People have raved about it. A friend, whose book recommendations I’ve often been steered well by, re-reads it. Monthly. 

So I apologise in advance. 

I found it to be… okay. 

It was standard zombie post-apocalyptic horror fare with a fairly interesting twist.  

Let’s look at the world building first … World building? World destruction? Whatever. It is set in the UK which makes a nice change from the almost ubiquitous American settings. This is, perhaps, not hugely surprising as M. R. Carey hails from Liverpool but the occasional  reference (like the one to David Attenborough) gives it, momentarily, a very British feel. The setting, however, quickly became fairly generic: generic Army base; generic devastated countryside; generic infected cities. 

But one of the pleasures of zombie novels, for me, is the imagined mechanics of it all. Mira Grant’s Feed books had a credible virus-origin; World War Z felt credible enough; Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a little convenient and vague. The infection here, however, is fungal rather than viral and rooted in real science: the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis  fungus apparently does infect and change the behaviours of ants which actually is genuinely amazing! And it must be true: it’s on Wikipedia here! It is one of those facts that does shift your perception of the natural world. These are fungi, pretty much the most basic organism in the world. Taking control of an insect. In the world of the novel, a mutated form of this fungus does the same in people, destroying the higher functions of the brain and exaggerating the hunger. 

So far, so good: a pretty solid creation. The twist comes in the form of the ten-year old protagonist Melanie: infected but somehow retaining her higher processes: language, memory, intelligence, which we are told repeatedly is at genius-level, emotion and empathy. We first meet her along with nearly two dozen other children, housed in a cell, strapped into a wheelchair and transported back and forth to have classes with a variety of teachers, her favourite being Miss Justineau. Occasionally, children are removed by Doctor Caldwell to be dissected. As a reader, we catch on fairly quickly, and Melanie’s partial understanding and her almost wilful refusal to confront it is managed well enough. 

Although not first person, the point of view is generally Melanie’s and the language seems to match it with a simplicity and clarity and naivety which is pretty effective. But the voice doesn’t change when our point of view does which don’t seem terribly well managed. Equally clumsily done are the various infodumps about the infection: even Justineau asks Caldwell why she’s telling her how the infection began. 

In terms of structure and plot, it progresses in the only real way it could: the security of the base is compromised; a small band of survivors flee, heading for Beacon, some safe holdfast south of London. On the way, Carey tries to develop the back stories of his characters before the inevitable occurs. 

And that was where the novel faltered, for me. The characters never emerged from two-dimensionality: Parks was always the gruff but well-meaning Sargeant; Gallagher, always the immature innocent soldier caught up in a war he did not understand; Caldwell never became more than a female Dr Mengele; Justineau the compassionate. And they were so incredibly stupid! Heading for cities where the concentration of zombies was at its highest; approaching a zombie in the street. Even Melanie, who was the most intriguing of them all, didn’t really engage me. I’d seen it done before in Cronin’s The Passage and between Melanie and Amy Harper Bellafonte, there is no contest.

I mean, don’t get me wrong… This is not a bad book; it’s a decent read and a good example of the genre; it’s not lyrical or beautiful in its language but it is well written and well paced. It’s a decent book. I just don’t get the huge praise I’ve heard about it. 

Maybe it’s me. 

Maybe I’m missing something. 

Related



 I’ve been considering reading this for a while.  I do like Sanderson’s world building, especially in the Mistborn series; I also have a penchant for superheroes, dating back to a misspent youth. Sanderson’s take on superheroes was appealing and tempting, especially as the sequel to Steelheart, entitled Firefight, came out in January this year. 

And yet… For some reason I’ve hesitated, not quite prepared to part with cold hard cash for it. Thank goodness for libraries! Got the book out, paid nothing. And, in all honesty, I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.

So, the basic premise is that something called Calamity appeared in the sky and people were gifted the powers we are so familiar with from superhero movies: Steelheart himself has very obvious echoes of Superman with invulnerability, flight, strength and energy bolts, albeit from his hands, flapping cape. He also has the ability to turn matter to steal. We also come across characters who can phase through walls and command shadows, create illusions and turn invisible, generate electricity, and demonstrate precognition. We also hear of people with powers to control earth or fire, to heal or to reduce people to ash with a thought or a pointed finger. These gifted people become known as Epics and quickly become warped, homicidal and power-hungry. 

A small group of rebels known as The Reckoners and led by the enigmatic Prof try to fight back by eliminating individual Epics. The novel commences as David infiltrates the Reckoners and shares his plan to defeat Steelheart. 

This is very much a Young Adult read: it rattles along with the pace of a computer game from set piece battle to set piece battle. The pace, however, led to somewhat two dimensional characters for me, again reminiscent of video game stock characters: a tank sporting an oversized gun, a sharpshooter, a hacker, a planner. There was never any time to feel as if I knew them, or even that there was anything to know. 

Sanderson’s world here was also not an original world such as he created in the Mistborn or Way of Kings. It is Chicago, transformed to steel by Steelheart and cloaked in eternal night. Sanderson does like to identify his worlds with individual features: the ash and fog of Mistborn; the rock and winds of The Way Of Kings; and now this steel cityscape. 

In many ways, Steelheart feels very similar to Mistborn: a city dominated by an apparently invincible tyrant; a plucky band of rebels; mysterious powers. What it lacks though was the charisma of Kelsier or the depth and humanity of Vin. The Prof and David simply didn’t have the same power. 

There are some fabulous and thoughtful Young Adult books out there – nodding to Phillip Pullman and Patrick Ness, Julie Berry’s All The Truth That’s In Me – and some cracking fun one – Derek Landy and Skulduggery Pleasant. This book falls somewhere in the middle. It is a decent read but it takes itself too seriously to be joyously fun and doesn’t have the depth to really explore the characters. 

And it really annoyed me that Sanderson – or David anyway – cannot differentiate between a simile and a metaphor. It is David’s character trait that his similes are lame: 

“Wow,” I said. “It’s like … A banana farm for guns.”
“A banana farm, Megan said flatly. 
“Sure. You know, how bananas grow from their trees and hang down and stuff?”
“Knees, you suck at metaphors.”
I blushed. An art gallery, I thought. I should have said “like an art gallery for guns.”

These are not metaphors. Similes!





Ahhhhh David Mitchell.

This, for me, is probably your crowning glory. I loved the realism and naturalistic voice of Black Swan Green; I also loved the mysticism and scope of Cloud Atlas. The Bone Clocks incorporates both those elements whilst ramping up the fantastical into a breathtaking and deft novel.

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The novel most closely resembles Cloud Atlas in its structure: a range of interconnected stories narrated by a variety of characters. The connection between them, in this case, is straightforward: the character of Holly Sykes whose voice introduces the novel in 1984 as a fifteen year old girl; whose voice closes the novel as a seventy-four year old in a post-apocalyptic 2043; and who crosses the paths of each of the other narrators in between – Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Iris Marinus Fenby.

2015/01/img_6603.jpg Each section works as a self-contained tale; and the whole is coherent, compelling and tragic. The way in which Mitchell incorporates his human voices into a fantasy cosmography and mythology is exquisite.

Let’s take a look at the different sections of the novel.

Our first introduction to Holly Sykes in A Hot Spell sees her escaping her parents’ pub and cheating boyfriend. Holly reveals that she had heard voices inside her head as a child, which she named The Radio People before being ‘cured’. As she walks, she encounters the equally teenage Ed Brubeck, an angling Esther Little to whom she agrees to offer asylum and a somewhat incomprehensible and unexpected encounter with a homicidal magical being. Following a quick memory swipe, we follow her off to The Isle of Sheppey where she picks fruit briefly before Ed Brubeck finds her to reveal that her brother, Jacko, has gone missing.

Holly was a wonderfully engaging character: realistically naive and gullible, regurgitating opinions and half-formed thoughts; childishly impulsive; impetuous and independent. And strong.

The second section, slightly oddly entitled Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume, a line from the carol We Three Kings, follows the Cambridge student Hugo Lamb in 1991. Ironically, that is one year before I entered Cambridge. The Cambridge depicted was not one I remembered – possibly as I wasn’t a member of the choral society, didn’t hang out with minor aristocracy and wasn’t groomed by societies of immortal atemporals. I was somewhat disappointed not to be approached by MI5! There did seem to be an element of caricature in the characterisation … but then, it was still a highly enjoyable caricature!

And I wasn’t a sociopath, which Hugo Lamb was. He seemed utterly devoid of conscience, ethics or morals, leaving friends dead, women used and the helpless cheated. And yet was somehow compelling. I liked him; and felt slightly dirty for doing so! He is also the deeply unpleasant cousin in Black Swan Green and the reveal there was a genuinely pleasurable ahhhh moment!

His encounter with Holly Sykes in a ski resort was brief and tender, offering him (and her) something akin to redemption.

The third installment, The Wedding Bash, set in 2004, was in my opinion the strongest and most tightly controlled section. Holly is now in a relationship with Ed Brubeck who is a war reporter for Spyglass Magazine, the same magazine featured in Cloud Atlas. They have a daughter, Aoife, and have amassed in Sussex for Holly’ sister’s wedding.

This section alternates between the domestic tensions in the Sykes-Brubeck household and Ed’s recollections of a near-death experience in Baghdad. Ed’s feeling of being torn between his world’s – domestic and international – was utterly convincing. As were his almost self-destructive interactions with Holly.

Perhaps the reason for the success of this section was the extremely light-touch fantasy elements.

It was a shame in some ways that it was succeeded by the weakest section, Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet set in 2015 following Crispin Hershey, author of Dessicated Embryos – a thinly disguised Martin Amis of Dead Babies fame – on the literary tour route as his career floundered. Partially as a result of a negative review of his most recent book by Richard Cheese man, whom we had previously met as an undergraduate friend of Hugo Lamb.

This section didn’t add much to the novel: Hershey was a self-interested and self-pitying egomaniac – without the delicious darkness of Lamb. We do see his character evolve, but it is one of the longest sections of the novel narrated by its least engaging voice. But it does serve to re-introduce both Lamb and the fantastical more concretely.

And that leads us to 2025 and An Horologist’s Labyrinth. This section explores the fantasy element to its full: its narrator is an atemporal immortal b
with psychosoteric powers of mind reading and control (scansion and suasion), telekinesis and others. Magic, in short. We learn of Horologists like Iris Marinus Fenby who reincarnate and Anchorites who decant others’ souls to achieve immortality. We learn of the war between them and the significance of 1984 and the offer of asylum becomes explicit.

This section could have stood as a fantasy element in its own right: the mythologising is deft and detailed, the characters convincing, the familiarity we have with Holly by this point, moving.

I was concerned that this book might not quite work, that the literariness and the fantastical might jar. But I was wrong. Save for the Hershey episode, I don’t think there’s a single misstep.

There is, however, one overwhelming message in this book: stock up on tampons and insulin in 2030. And move to Iceland.

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I am a huge Patrick Ness fan!

Let me put that out there at the start of this.

I hugely admired his Chaos Walking Trilogy but was utterly blown away by the visceral emotion and mythic scope of A Monster Calls. There are few books that dig inside you as much as that one.

This book is different again: much closer to the feel of Chaos Walking although without the epic scope and scale – and no less powerful for that.

At one level, the book is a rip-roaring adventure: Seth, our protagonist, dies in the prologue. On page 11. Dies with 469 pages left to fill. Those pages recount what Seth does after his death. Maybe.

Having died in a frigid ocean, in winter, in America he is somewhat surprised to have found himself on the path of his parents’ old house in an abandoned and apparently post-apocalyptic English town in Summer. Alone. Perhaps.

Echoes of I Am Legend, Robinson Crusoe and George Romero’s films – minus the zombies – abound as Seth navigates this empty town, discovers and loots from camping stores and supermarkets. There’s even a discovery of a foot print to make the link to Robinson Crusoe stronger.

Seth discovers – or is discovered by – two other survivors in the town: the defensive and resilient Regine and the delightfully tenderly vulnerable Tomasz. And with them, the book acquires other echoes: a sinister black-clad visored Driver pursues them as if stepping out of a Terminator movie; the world has – or may have – integrated – or been forced to integrate – itself into a digital alternative reality programme in the style of The Matrix.

There are sufficient run-ins with, escapes and rescues from and fights with the Driver that this book could be read purely at that adventure story level.

It does follow the tropes, patterns and cliches of the science fiction / action adventure movie genre.

And behind the adventure that awaits Seth in the world he wakes up in is a beautifully tender and painful tale of growing up. Seth is one of the very few gay characters I can bring to mind in Young Adult fiction. His secret relationship with Gudmund is described in beautifully tender prose. The taking of the photograph, which eventually exposes their relationship, is real and touching and deeply moving. As is the pain of separation between them.

And beneath this coming-of-age narrative is the deeply traumatic tale of Owen, Seth’s younger brother, who was – perhaps – abducted from their home when Seth was eight.

It’s a book of books, of stories, of narratives. Characters’ pasts are revealed in dreams and flashbacks; characters reveal parts of their own stories to each other. The sharing and offering of their own stories rendering them vulnerable and binding the trio together.

Towards the beginning of the book in a flashback, Seth and his friends Gudmund, Monica and H are discussing the cheerleaders and Gudmund considers having sex with one for a bet to which Seth replies

“What,” Seth said, “and then secretly find out that she’s got a heart of gold and actually fall in love with her and then she dumps you when she finds out about the bet but you prove yourself to her by standing outside her house in the rain playing her your special song and on prom night you share a dance that reminds not just the school but the entire wounded world what love really means?”
He stopped because they were all looking at him.
“Damn Seth,” Monica said admiringly. “‘The entire wounded world.’ I’m putting that in my next paper for Edson.”
Seth crossed his arms. “I’m just saying a bet over Gudmund having sex with Chiara Leithauser sounds like some piece of shit teenage movie none of us would watch in a million years.”

And that’s the point. Seth knows how cliched some of the events are. He avoids living in the cliches of these narratives. The existence of convenient cliches cause him to come close to dismissing the reality of the world because it follows narrative tropes. He recognises that last-moment rescues would be expected if he were living through a story. He expects apparently dead antagonists to return for one last assault.

And he questions that. And we question it.

Is the world real? Are his memories and dreams real? Are Regine and Thomasz real? Are they echoes of Viola and Manchee from Chaos Walking? Are Owen, Gudmund, H or Monica real? Is the love between Seth and Gudmund real?

And does it matter?

This is one of the most thoughtful and – dare I use a deeply unfashionable word? – philosophical novels I have read for a long time. And the philosophy within it never becomes pure exposition. It is always embedded in character – and often undermined by either Regine’s pragmatism or Tomasz’ affection. As Regine tells Seth:

“I think I’m the only real thing I’ve got… wherever I am, whatever this world is, I’ve just got to be sure I’m me and that’s what’s real.” She blows out a cloud of smoke. “Know yourself and go in swinging. If it hurts when you hit it, it might be real too.”

In addition to the characters and relationships, the flashbacks and the power of stories, what (else) I love about this book – and I imagine others will be put off for exactly this as well – is that, in the end, on the final page, Seth and we are no clearer to knowing where this world is, how real Seth’s experiences are or what is going on. At all. Ness saw no obligation to explain, tie things up or concretise anything.

The entire book is unsettling. Disrupts our sense of reality. Deliciously tilts our world. And it achieves it through simply written, elegant prose.

Remarkable.

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I’m not going to write much about this book: it doesn’t really warrant it!

This is the third in Mira Grant’s post-zombie-apocalypse political thriller Feed trilogy – so I have that glow of satisfaction of completion having read it – but it is a trilogy that should never have been. The first book, Feed was, I thought, actually pretty good up to and including the death of the main character and narrator. Book two, Deadline lost the plot, both literally and metaphorically: without the direction that Feed had because it was following a presidential campaign, Deadline seemed to lurch from one disaster to another with no real momentum; and the change of narrator from Georgia to Shaun Mason did not work. Primarily the change of narrator did not work because Shaun became unstable, violent and heard the voice of his dead sister. All of that I could have accepted. Except that Grant kept telling me that Shaun was crazy. Over and over. And over. It became dull. Slightly offensive to anyone who has struggled with bereavement. And never really engaged with as a narrative device. There is a wealth of unreliable narrators in fiction – a rich vein of interesting perspectives to delve into – all of which were eschewed just to expound the fact that Shaun was “crazy”. A waste of a narrative opportunity.

And all these problems from Deadline continue into Blackout with less zombie action – which is not a bad thing – and a really disappointing return of the dead Georgia. As a clone. Cheap sci-fi resurrection device number one. Not just a clone which I could have accepted but a clone which contains all of the original Georgia’s memories.

Plot holes abound: the CDC created the clones in order to look like but not act like the original Georgia – who was critical of the CDC and whose brother had broken into the CDC on numerous occasions. So why put 97% of her memories and personality into place at all when they weren’t going to use her anyway? The programme was created by one of Georgia’s colleagues, Rick, who is now Vice-President because she would be believed when she exposed the conspiracy. Is the US public pre-disposed to believe dead people? Even in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world? Would not any other journalist be believed – such as any member of the entire After The End Times team, trained by Georgia? Resurrecting a dead woman at a cost of billions – not to mention the ethical implications – was easier than speaking to her replacement? Or her brother?

And the final denouement? More clones were exposed; hostages were released off-screen in the space of two pages which really begged the question Why didn’t you do that a year ago, you morons?.

Rushed, unsuccessfully plotted; two-dimensional and unconvincing characters; pedestrian prose.

No, this was not a great book. Nor even, really, a good read.

Sorry, Mira, I wanted to like it but I didn’t.

And what happened to my zombie bear? I mean, I’m not a great fan of gore and violence but popcorn books need fun and some action and a standout sequence. Don’t give up your opportunities to show the sheer fun of a story. You showed us a zombie bear on the road and then did not show the confrontation with it! You even tell the reader later how cool it was without ever showing it being cool! This moment has all the hallmarks of a great action moment which either Grant or her editors excised.

But it was still on the blurb of the book!

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It’s a strange thing with books. You can start one – particularly a lengthy one like this – and things get in the way of you finishing it. That’s not the strange thing. That – I imagine – is familiar. Maybe you put it down because work has become hectic or your baby is born and you think I’ll come back to it in a couple of days but you end up never quite having the time. That happened with me and The Twelve, the second in Cronin’s The Passage trilogy. But the strange thing that I mentioned at the beginning if this paragraph is that, however long I leave a book for, once I’ve picked it up again, it’s all just there! No re-reading needed. It’s as if I open a door and step back into their world without a pause. Like Narnia. So picking up The Twelve again, I stepped back through into Cronin’s world.

And it is a dark and twisted world: humanity has been almost wiped out by the vampiric virals from The Passage (for my review of which, see here) and little pockets are all that is left. In The Passage, those pockets were struggling to survive; in The Twelve, they’re starting to fight back and this gives the sequel a very different feel to the original. Our main characters have become militarised. It is, perhaps, analogous to the different tone of Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens. For me, personally, I was significantly more engaged by the characters in the first book: their relations were more complex, more human and more credible.

Amy Harper Bellafonte – The Girl From Nowhere – injected with the virus which produced the vampires as a child but somehow retaining her humanity – a single character connecting the time before and the time after – was such a massively evocative and engaging character in The Passage that I felt almost cheated by her demotion in this sequel. She became almost a secondary character until the finale.

Her role is almost taken by Lawrence Grey, the janitor who was taken by Zero when he escaped; and by Anthony Carter, the one innocent man among the twelve convicts who were originally infected. We see Grey in the aftermath of the Twelve’s escape forming a bond with Lila Kyle – Brad Wolgast’s mentally unstable estranged wife – but eventually captured by Horace Guilder. The relationship between Grey and Kyle was quite affecting as Kyle retreats from the horrors around her into a fantasy world. Both characters were engagingly vulnerable but the extensive and exhaustive prolongation of her fantasy did start to become tedious.

What I did like was the reversal of the antagonists: the eponymous twelve themselves were fairly distant and abstract with, literally, a walk-on part. The real antagonist was Horace Guilder: capturing Grey and assuming the role of Lila Kyle’s husband, he realises that Grey’s blood can keep him alive. Grey is, therefore, imprisoned and farmed for his blood for a century.

Guilder becomes a collaborator with the virals – thanks to Lila’s warped sense of reality, his ability to manipulate her and her ability to control the virals – and founder of The Homeland. The Homeland is a city-state run on a quasi-religious totalitarian basis, capturing free humans to use as slave labour in concentration camp conditions. The true horrors are committed here by humans against humans: maltreatment, a feedlot of virals to feed dissidents and insurgents to (taking the place of the gas chambers), torture, rape and the farming of bodily fluids from men, women and children. Cronin did succeed in creating an intriguing antagonist in Guilder: he is simultaneously demonic and ridiculous; totalitarian and impotent; a true grotesque.

In all, this book felt like a bridge between the first and last books on the trilogy. It almost felt as if the mechanics of the virals – that each of the Twelve governed a massive pod of virals who they had turned and who could be destroyed en masseby killing the appropriate member of the Twelve who had sired them – was too cumbersome. It would have needed perhaps one book for each of the Twelve and become really repetitive! So Cronin used this book to simultaneously build up Zero as the ultimate antagonist and dispatch the other Twelve. I would be interested to know whether the original plan was for three of twelve books….

The prose of The Twelve also seemed to me more prosaic, less varied and less lyrical than The Passage.

Was this a good novel? Yes, of course it was! The world and the characters in particular are engaging and interesting. I find the religious parallels at best a tad contrived and occasionally uncomfortable. And yes I am looking forward to a showdown between Lish, Amy (and perhaps Carter) with Zero – previously known as Tim Fanning and the first to be infected in the wilds of Bolivia in The Passage.

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In education, there is a chap by the name of Dylan Wiliam who espouses the theory that one shouldn’t give grades out. Children look at their grade and either think “yeah, that’s good enough” or they think “I’m a failure and there’s no point in trying”. Dylan Wiliam tells us that we should just give advice with no grade attached.

Perhaps that’s why I tend not to give star ratings on my reviews.

But sometimes, just sometimes, a star rating might be useful. Having read Deadline immediately on top of finishing Feed, a nice clear and visual indication that I didn’t like this one as much as the first could be useful.

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Okay, so this is book two of the Newsflesh trilogy in a post-zombie apocalypse world. The dead rose. The living shot them. Our heroes are the same team of intrepid bloggers that we followed in Feed. Link here to my review of that one.

Well, almost the same team.

Well 33.3% of them. No spoiler alert here. I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you’ll have read Feed already. Georgia Mason, our first person narrator, and Buffy the tech-geek died in book one. I applaud that. It’s a brave move and unexpected – rule one of a first person narrative is almost that your narrator has to live! Georgia’s final blog post in Feed, as the Kellis-Amberlee zombie virus took over her body and her brother Shaun held a gun to her spine, was effective and moving.

But it left Grant with a problem. Shaun Mason, Georgia’s adopted brother and an adrenaline junkie Irwin and, to be honest, a bit of a prat, took over the team and narration.

And he really wasn’t up to the job.

Various beta-characters that had been mentioned in Feed re-appear in Deadline as the new team. But the team was pointless. Georgia had been driven, the political campaign in Feed had given direction. Shaun’s team appeared to drift somewhat aimlessly from one disaster to another. But maybe that was the point, to emphasise the enormity of the loss.

And he hears voices in his head.

Well, one voice. Georgia’s.

He is self-diagnosed as ‘crazy’ and repeatedly referencing the fact that he talks to her and how others reacted to it became… tiresome. And continually threatening to punch people or walls was… tedious.

The plot – which I had praised in Feed – has become razor thin. A minor doctor from the CDC who we’d met briefly in Feed arrives at Shaun’s home / office with sensitive information. People with a form of the zombie virus which affected only a certain organ, such as the eyes, were dying more frequently than people without these so-called reservoir conditions.

Almost immediately, zombies appear on the roof of the building and an air strike wipes out that section of the city. Obviously, our heroes escape and re-group at the fortified home of one of their fiction writers – because all writers of doggerel and aficionados of George Romero zombie movies are also the heir to mega-fortunes.

Various road trips ensue. To an underground zombie virus laboratory. To the increasingly shady CDC. Twice.

More clunky plot devices are rammed at us.

More statistics are uncovered remarkably easily.

Zombies are used as weapons to try to thwart our increasingly unplucky and occasionally downright annoying heroes.

An awkward love moment happens for no real reason whatsoever.

The strength of Feed‘s drive and shape is lost here, although it remains a fairly taut conspiracy thriller. The credibility of the world created by Grant does wear a little thin here. The blogosphere becomes nothing more than background noise: under Shaun’s narration, it is little more than a revenge novel. Shaun’s time on the successful presidential campaign and the fact that his friend has become vice-president was sidelined. The fact that there may be organisations that would seek to benefit from a zombie-based opportunity and the fears it engendered I get… but I’m not so sure that releasing zombies into city blocks in order to level the area to kill a renegade scientist and a couple of journalists seems a rather blunt and ineffectual assassination technique.

I’d also have liked more on the statistics and more on the epidemiology. Another weakness in Shaun’s narration was that he didn’t understand the science and we were reliant on rather artificial and clunky dialogue to explain it. Which was a shame: Grant seems to have put a lot of effort into devising a credible viral pathway to zombiehood … and I’d have liked more.

And more on the evidence that was found that showed the extent of the corruption and manipulation of the reservoir conditions.

For a book revolving around bloggers and containing excerpts from their blogs both published and unpublished, I wanted to see this evidence first hand. As bloggers, I would have thought Shaun would have put the original figures online – or at least in an unpublished blog or secure server – alongside the interpretation. And it wouldn’t have been a huge effort for Mason to have mocked that up for us, his reader. Ideally colour coded. With graphs.

Overall, I do feel slightly disappointed. I have some faith that Mason will be able to bring things back together. The repeated reference to Georgia’s retinal KA in Feed makes more sense as one of the reservoir conditions brought up in Deadline. I’m hoping President Ryman and Shaun’s hearing and seeing the dead Georgia will all be knitted together in book 3. As well as Dr Abbey.

Clearly, in the world of the undead, death may not be the end of Georgia Mason.

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