The setting of the book starts 20 years after a deadly pathogen has ravished the globe (yet another post-apocalyptic scenario!). People are not recovering from the spread of fungus – that essentially turns people into flesh-eating zombies and which is transmitted by a bite and the saliva it contains.
In the British countryside, a makeshift military base has been set-up with prison cells, a lab and a classroom in order to monitor and dissect the surviving children.
The story is that of Melanie, whose name means “black girl”, a startling pure white little 10-year-old princess living in the confines of the prison. Children around her are strapped to their chairs and moved around in restraints. There are military guards everywhere and the school curriculum is there just for show in order to see if showing affection to the kids modifies their killer behaviour in any ways.
“The truth is the truth, the only prize worth having. If you deny it, you’re only showing that you’re unworthy of it.”
Melanie has a teacher crush in the form of mrs. Justineau – who is the only one who seems to treat children like the people they are and not like brain-crazed zombies.
Our journey takes from that countryside military base, sheltered from the hungries (zombie fungus creatures) and junkers (people who haven’t gone to secure locations and choose to live in the wild among the monsters) to the desolate streets of London as 4 humans and a child hungry try to make it to Beacon – an outpost somewhere near London that has become an inner city slum and I guess the only secure home for humans in this part of England
The book started out slow as the author takes time to describe the characters, the settings and the cause for the plague. We meet Melanie, an intelligent 10-year-old zombie, Helen Justineau, her teacher and idealised parent-figure, Sergeant Parks, the scarred military man in charge of keeping the base safe and who doesn’t trust Melanie and Dr. Caroline Caldwell – the ruthless child butchering scientist.
Dr Caroline is trying to find a cure or antidote to the hungry zombie infection by performing vivisection on the children and removing their brains to study.
“Denial is a stage she goes through very quickly indeed, because her reason strikes down the demeaning, treacherous thought as quickly as it rises. There’s no point in denying the truth when the truth is self-evident. There’s no point in denying the truth even if you have to wade through thorn thickets and minefields to get to it. The truth is the truth, the only prize worth having. If you deny it, you’re only showing that you’re unworthy of it.”
The last character presented is Private Kieran Gallagher one of Parks’ soldiers who is a loser that pretty much brings about the destruction of the country base by inadvertently getting some junkers of importance killed.
The parts in the base were slow but once the junkers destroyed it and killed or got almost everyone killed, our group of 5 set out into the wider world heading to Beacon. We get to see the post-apocalyptic world through Melanie’s eyes as she explores the outside for the first time.
“It’s like before the Breakdown people used to spend their whole lives making cocoons for themselves out of furniture and ornaments and books and toys and pictures and any kind of shit they could find. As though they hoped they’d be born out of the cocoon as something else.”
Final thoughts: Although this begins as an interesting dystopian novel, it soon descends into a fairly basic zombie story and, once I fell in with the plot, my heart began to sink (it’s in no way as good as The Stand or I am Legend * Robert Matheson). A group of characters find themselves on the run in a hostile environment. The strong female characters in a genre which is very male oriented led the story in a more interesting way and Melanie’s realisation of who, and what, she is, is very well done. However, I found it difficult to retain interest in the plot and it did become rather wearing, and rather ridiculous, towards the end. By far the strongest part of the novel is at the beginning, when you are not sure of why Melanie is being kept and caged like a laboratory animal. Towards the middle it became rather a slog to the finish and I got to the end with relief.
There are some good bits: kudos for the use of creepy kids and even though the brain dissections have been done and are now a cliche in nearly every zombie movie, I liked how the author took some time to research the medical terms of what the Doctor was slicing up. The strong relationship between Melanie and Justineau was also depicted wonderfully – show how strong attachment can be formed between people not related by blood.
“Melanie finds this interesting in spite of herself — that you can use words to hide things, or not to touch them, or to pretend that they’re something different than they are.”
This book was made into a movie in 2016 and one of the notable differences is that Melanie’s name now seems to fit.