Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Book Review: ROT & RUIN, by Jonathan Maberry

I wanted my first review here to be a positive one.  As it turns out, this one is more than positive; it’s glowing like my radioactive zombie brethren.

ROT & RUIN, by Jonathan Maberry, is described as a coming-of-age story, set in a post-zombie-apocalypse world.  From the time of the narrative, the dead started rising – and, of course, feeding on the living – fourteen years ago.  On that First Night, protagonist (comer-of-age) Benny Imura was only a baby.  In the world in which Benny has grown up, most of humanity’s few survivors live in fenced-in, fortified communities, technology has largely been abandoned (to the point where long-distance communication does not exist), and nobody talks very much about life before First Night.  Now fifteen, according to the laws of this new society, Benny must take on a job, and begins with no small reluctance to work with his much-older brother, Tom, who has raised Benny – in a mostly strained, tense dynamic – since First Night, in the “family business”:  Taking contracts from living relatives of zombies to “quiet” their undead loved ones.  Benny and Tom’s relationship is central to the story, character development and theme of the novel.

For those among you who like to categorize (and what healthy – or unhealthy – horror geek doesn't?), these are slow-moving, Romero-esque zombies.  The novel could actually work very nicely as an extension of the Romero mythology, intelligently exploring the what-ifs of the years following a global zombie outbreak.  As in Uncle George’s films, all recently deceased humans “come back,” not just those infected by existing zombies (although a bite from one is a quick one-way ticket to join the rotting ranks).  Also in the Romero tradition, almost no time is spent on the whys behind the problem:  At one or two points a character may mention a couple of speculative hypotheses about why one day the dead just started reanimating and eating the living, but none of this is important to the story.  Like the best of Romero’s work, this is a story about people:  About people struggling to survive and find some new sense of normalcy in the midst of a bizarre, horrible and previously unthinkable set of circumstances.  In such a situation, some ordinary, imperfect humans will find themselves rising to their greatest heights.  Others will sink to the lowest, slimiest depths imaginable.  Again, in keeping with the Romero tradition, the villains are not the hapless living dead.  The true monsters in the story are living humans, taking selfish, sociopathic advantage of a bad situation, in order to dominate and exploit their fellow humans in the most hideous possible ways.  The bounty hunters of ROT & RUIN, led by the hateful-beyond-words Charlie Pinkeye, make DAWN OF THE DEAD’s biker gang seem like a bunch of fun-loving schoolboys.

As I look over what these rotting fingers have typed thus far, I just want to point out that all of these comparisons and relations to Romero should in NO way imply that this is a unoriginal piece of fiction.  Far from it.  This is a powerful work which, while informed and inspired by what has come before, transcends its subgenre and takes its characters – and readers – through the emotional valleys and peaks of the human experience, from the agonies of loss, old wounds and family tension to the heart-soaring sublimeness of a teenager's first kiss.  (Before anyone cries spoiler, among the many kudos already heaped on this novel is one which celebrates that specific moment.)

Also, to any of you wizened, jaded, hardcorer-than-thou horror fiends who might be concerned about this book's designation as a YA novel, don't worry:  While it can be safely recommended to teen readers, there is nothing fluffy, dumbed down or fad-chasing in sight here – nothing sparkles, except the compelling story, character development and good old-fashioned literary style.  The only thing that could differentiate this from a work of “adult” fiction is the absence of explicit sex (and really, since the male and female leads are fifteen, I hope that's not a disappointment to anyone).

Lastly, for any naysayers commenting on this review's apparent lack of timeliness, there is a madness to my method (or something like that):  The novel's first sequel, DUST & DECAY, shambles into finer bookstores at the end of this month.  The coolest ghouls who haven't done so already will want to grab up and and devour R&R now, and thus be ready in time for D&D's release.  Any still-living fans who are fearful of venturing out of doors, lest the zombie apocalypse strike at any moment, can order one and preorder the other from Amazon, and wait safely in a locked and fortified house for the postman to brave the undead horde and deliver them to your doorstep.

Unless he's zombie, too.