Still more zombies? It’s 2014, and there are still waves of the undead? I guess the zombie scourge never really goes away, does it? Even when we think we’re safe and rebuilding society. Most of the marketing for this novel is hiding the fact that it’s a zombie story, but I’m not going to play along. You figure it out pretty early on.
But there is some good news. The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is original and refreshing, supplies sufficient gore and sufficient heart, and actually has believable science behind the explanation for zombies.
The Girl With All the Gifts begins with Melanie, a little girl kept in a cell except for when she’s taken to her classroom. No one ever touches her, and she has to be restrained in a chair whenever she’s taken from her tiny room. She’s never been outside. Melanie is one among many children in this mysterious place.
As the story goes on, we learn that this place is actually a military base. Melanie and the other children are actually medical experiments. And they’re not quite children, at least not altogether.
When disaster strikes the base, Melanie is among the few to escape. With her are Sergeant Parks, the military man who has guarded her and thinks she is a monster; Dr. Caldwell, who is a brilliant scientist and considers Melanie her prime test subject; and Miss Justineau, Melanie’s favorite teacher–and the only person in the world who cares for Melanie.
Along with being a zombie story, this is also the story of Melanie’s coming of age. You see her grow throughout the book, against the odds, learning about the world and herself. Her problems are, well, just a little different than most girls’. Her discoveries and her decisions and her abiding love for Miss Justineau are very well-done, and make a lovely counterpoint to the horror of the rest of the book.
There’s a lot of zombie story happening here, I have to say. Carey seems to have included tropes for every kind of fan–survivalist, military, gory, sentimental. I think all of the elements blend together into a work that will appeal to blood-and-guts enthusiasts and to those who like a more philosophical dystopian touch. There’s a little something for everyone.
The greatest strength in Carey’s writing is his scene-setting and his descriptive style. You’re right there in the action and in the moment, with immediacy and connection to the characters. The landscapes are vivid and the descriptions of the “hungries” will stick with you. The not very happy ending is great, as well, suited to the story and to Carey’s vision of the post-Breakdown world.
And now my favorite bit, the science. In my experience, zombie novels are always about viruses viruses viruses. Always a virus, whether the government has created it for *reasons*, a scientist went nuts one day, etc. One of the more refreshing aspects of this book is that there’s an actual scientific basis for what causes zombies. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to let you know about it, as it’s revealed pretty early on and most of the scientific side of the book is spent uncovering layers.
Here, I’ll let my good friend Stephen Fry explain the science to you. Caution: it’s creepy and gross, so be advised if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing. Also, spoilers for the book, I suppose, if you prefer to be completely surprised.
If you enjoyed The Girl With All the Gifts and want more of the same, I’d suggest the recent refreshing zombie tales The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell and The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse by Steven C. Schlozman. The first is great if you like the exploration of humanity in a dangerously inhuman reality, and the second would be a good choice if you enjoy the medical/scientific aspect the most. Justin Cronin’s The Passage might also be appealing, if you like the quest aspect. There’s also some great world-building in that one. Last, Mira Grant’s YA trilogy, beginning with Feed, might appeal to those who enjoy zombie apocalypse novels where the world has gone on. Here is the blog post I wrote about it, and you can find some other readalike ideas there.