Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Girl with All the Gifts

* spoilers *

Melanie loves going to class and interacting with her teachers, especially Miss Justineau. When she's not in class, she sits alone in her cell with no one to talk to and nothing to do until Sgt. Parks comes to collect her. When this happens, he trains a gun on her and straps her thoroughly into a wheelchair and takes her to class, to bathe, or to eat. Her classmates disappear periodically and don't return. One day, the base is attacked and Melanie finally gets to leave her very small world. She escapes with a small band of people including Miss Justineau, Sgt. Parks, Dr. Caldwell, and Private Kieran Gallagher. Together, they work to seek shelter, collect food, and avoid hungries in the wasteland that is England. Unfortunately, Melanie is discovering much about herself in her new environment, including keeping her own hunger in check...

The Girl with All the Gifts is a zombie novel. It's kind of weird this fact isn't advertised on the book jacket at all, but it was a pleasant surprise. The zombie apocalypse happened 30 years ago and only the smallest semblance of human society exists now. The zombies are called hungries for obvious reasons and the condition is caused by a fungus, a variation of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. I love authors that take frightening, real things in the animal kingdom and apply it to humans like the tape worms in Mira Grant's Parisitology series or the parasitic crustaceans in the 2012 film The Bay. The real world version of this affects ants and makes them drastically alter their behavior. They abandon their nests, find a place where the fungus can flourish, and stay there until they die to further the fungus life cycle. In humans, this looks like attacking other humans to spread the fungus, which is only spread through saliva and blood. The first generation of hungries is completely animalistic. They are attracted by human scent, follow it to their prey, and mindlessly attack. When humans aren't present, they don't even move. It simply isn't necessary for the fungus that has spread throughout their bodies and destroyed their brains. Like the ants, the infected will also eventually lay down and die to allow the fungus to grow from their bodies. The second generation of hungries retains some of their mental faculties when out of the scope of humans and can eventually be taught to act like normal humans.

Melanie is one of the second generation of hungries. When the novel starts, she has no idea what she is. She only knows her teachers, her classmates, and the lessons she is taught. She has no memory of the time before when she roamed with the other hungries in the wild. Her compassion throughout the novel is truly unparalleled. She feels for hungries and humans alike, but she doesn't let her emotions control her choices. Her classes lead her to be fascinated with Greek myths (Pandora in particular) and her teacher Miss Justineau. Despite being very sheltered for the first few years of her life, she adapts perfectly to each situation. She fights her instincts to eat people when needed and cooperates completely when the humans need to restrain her to feel safe or when she needs to intervene with the wild hungries. Despite all of the chaos and violence, Melanie stays mostly quiet and contemplative, processing all the new information and figuring out her place in the world. She ends up making a very important decision for the future and comes to it through careful thought. The ending is bittersweet and weirdly hopeful. Although Melanie is only ten years old, she's clearly wise beyond her years and a compelling focus character.

The military base where our cast of characters starts is the only known instance of conventional society and of people actively studying the zombies and working towards a cure. Their work is fascinating, but dubious in ethics. They are doing what they can to discover a cure with no sophisticated technology and no outside support. Unfortunately, their work also entails vivisecting sentient zombie children. I don't like Dr. Caldwell, the spearhead of the science study, but I respect her. The whole of humanity depends on her research and she's presumably the only person working on this. She dehumanizes the sentient zombies, but it's necessary to keep emotionally detached and focus on her research. Her research comes before everything. I enjoy books that give the villains dimensions. Dr. Caldwell is arguably not a villain, but the closest thing to it besides the zombies. I can see where she's coming from and I admire her dedication despite her abhorrent actions. Other humans are known as junkers and are content to live day to day, finding other people's bases and looting them in order to live another day.

The Girl with All the Gifts is a superb zombie novel. Mike Carey managed to put a new spin on an oversaturated genre, but this is unsurprising looking at his past works, namely the Unwritten comic book series. It's the best zombie book I've read in a while and I can't recommend it enough.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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