I really enjoyed this book, even though it’s a post-apocalyptic book about zombies. I think dystopias are depressing and zombies are scary and yucky, but this one slipped in under my radar by being categorized only as “sci-fi” and starting out sounding more like Firestarter or any other “amazing super kids kept in a government scientific lab” story.
The main protagonist is Melanie, a precocious/genius ten-year-old girl who has a crush on her teacher, Miss Justineau. (I’m guessing about how the names are spelled because I got this as an audiobook.) The students are bright and avid learners who accept their brutal existence with a lack of curiosity; this is all they’ve ever known. But Melanie suspects all is not right when two of her classmates are taken out of the class by Dr. Caldwell, never to return. She knows that everyone is afraid of the students, even Sergeant parks and the other soldiers, like Gallagher. She just doesn’t know why.
Soon everything changes and Melanie finds herself in the company of these adults, journeying through the beautiful but hellishly dangerous landscape of southern England. It’s populated by zombies (called “hungries” in this book, because they hunger) and junkers, who are barbaric survivalist types. From personal experience, I can tell you that the book is even more frightening if you are listening to it while walking through dark and mostly deserted streets. At one point, one of the hungries sings a creepy folk song, and the narrator did it so well I just about jumped out of my skin.
For some people, I’m sure the horror aspect is the best, and it can be nicely escapist to put my own petty anxieties in contrast with “well, at least my species isn’t on the verge of extinction because monsters are eating us.” For me, what made this book really exceptional was the way the characters interact with each other. Sergeant Parks and Dr. Caldwell are kind of simplified tropes, but it’s the way their alliances shift and their sympathies change that made the story so fascinating. Plus, having Dr. Caldwell obsessively research the fungus that zombifies people, telling us her findings, was a creative frame for worldbuilding.
I’m going to be chewing on this story for a while. It brings up a lot of interesting moral questions. Who is the real monster? The hungry children who hunt travelers? The doctor who cares only about saving the human race (even if she has to decapitate and kill–in that order–children do to it)? The scarred career soldier? The teacher who inculcates children with the culture of a world that has no relevance? Also, I’ll be thinking about some of the creepy scenes in this book for a while whether I want to or not. If you’re at all sensitive to children being injured, be warned. This book has a lot of that.