Thursday, 3 July 2014

Review: The Girl With All The Gifts by Mike Carey

A devastated world, an outbreak of something that drives people to become horrific, cannibalistic monsters; a society that has through stupidity and ineptitude managed to engineer its own collapse. A group of plucky individuals who have to survive against all costs.

These are the stock ingredients of the zombie apocalypse novel, so frequently used now that they have become cliches in their own right across all of post apocalypse fiction but especially for stories concerning zombies. Many people have tried to do something different with them, few have succeeded. Carey, with Girl with All the Gifts may well have done. This novel has all these elements within it and works within their boundaries, but its no common zombie apocalypse story; indeed the word 'zombie' never appears, even though the monsters - the 'Hungrys' - are obviously that. 

Despite this the story is skillfully told, keeping a tight on the characters, initially at the military base they inhabit and then on the group of survivors as they escape an attack by savage scavengers to try to make their way to  'Beacon', a place we never see in the novel and which has a talisman like quality for the protagonists. Beacon is safety and home, as much as those things can exist in a fallen world. Nothing else really gets a chance to be explored, and allows Carey to develop the pasts of the four adult characters, establishing who they are, how they came to be at the base and how they relate to the 'Girl' - Melanie.

Melanie is the key figure in this; it is her story and she serves as the protagonist and the catalyst for the events of the narrative. Her nature is in flux throughout the tale, shifting as she grows along with her world. There is an element of hero worship on the author's part; Melanie does not seem to have any real flaws, those are left to the adults. Given her eventual role in the story this may be an attempt to fit her role to a mythological rather than literary structure, but it is never quiet clear if this is intentional or not. Nevertheless she is an interesting character to read, and watch develop as she becomes less victim and more leader. Carey adapts her relationships to the other characters well, allowing her to bond with the soldiers who make up the male contingent of the group, whilst her relationship with the women is complicated and in places contradictory. Melanie's role is also one where she can change the world around her, ultimately bringing a sort of end to the status quo the world has fallen into, albeit one that means that the world will change forever.

The world building feels similar to Margaret Atwood's, albeit without the crazy cults and the slow disintegration of society. The revelation about the cause of the pandemic and its eventual 'cure' I found rather reminiscent to the end of Year of the Flood. The background of the story feels very much in this vein too, with capitalism being outright identified as one cause of the crisis that led to society's collapse; it does feel a little as if the author is wearing his politics on his sleeve. Whilst the novel will undoubtedly be marketed as horror I feel the tone and pace of the work makes it more akin to a post apocalyptic science fiction story than anything else.

In all this is a well written, well realised book even with its few flaws. If you enjoy zombie fiction I recommend it and if you don't but want to try something different then it may be worth a look. Whilst Carey does not reinvent the wheel he includes enough new ideas to raise this above the usual level of this kind of novel and with careful handling provides a book that is not just another run of the mill zombie story but something with heart.

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