Bring out yer dead! And bring out yer reading glasses while you’re at it, because you are not going to want to miss this.
So, what happens after a zombie apocalypse? What happens after the survivors dust themselves off (and take multiple, hour-long, bleach-laced showers)?
Why, you hold a presidential election, that’s what.
In her widely acclaimed (and multi HUGO award nominated) Newsflesh trilogy, author Mira Grant thoroughly explores the life, culture, and politics of a world wrenched from the jaws of the undead. The trilogy (made up of Feed, Deadline, and Blackout) is most definitely not your run-of-the-mill zombie romp. Tense, taut, and with a healthy streak of dark, razor-sharp wit, these books are basically what would happen if The West Wing or House of Cards took place after the zombie uprising.
The books are told from the perspective of Shaun and Georgia Mason, two bloggers at After The End Times. The whole story is set in 2039, after a wonderful übervirus called Kellis-Amberlee causes the dead to abandon the common decency of staying dead, and instead start eating people. So, when does the Rising take place (that’s what we call the zombie apocalypse, get with the terminology, people)? This year (2014), at least according to the story. So grab your machetes, and sharpen your trench spikes.
It’s not all bad, though. People in 2039 have learned to cope with the walking dead. Life has moved on, and blogging has risen to become one of the most important forms of news distribution. While most people are content to hide behind re-enforced glass (and concrete, and . . . well, more or less anything that can be re-enforced), bloggers are the brave souls who go out and find the news, wherever it may shamble, lurk, and lunge.
One of the most beautiful things about these books, is also the one thing that makes describing them unbelievably difficult. The world building. Oh the world building. Seriously, if the Newsflesh world were any more detailed, I’d be convinced that Grant is some sort of time lord, come from the future. I could spin you a 3,000 word essay on the post-Rising world, and only cover a fifth of the details in the books. Best of all, though, is that all these details are so masterfully and organically woven into the narrative, that you don’t even process the fact that you’re picking them up.
It’s against this skewed backdrop that Shaun and Georgia embark on their coverage of Republican senator Peter Ryman’s presidential campaign. What follows is a descent into conspiracy, backstabbing, and a vortex of intrigue that reaches much deeper than anyone might expect. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that by the end of it, you’ll be firmly rooting for the zombies.
Feed is the first book in the trilogy, and as you might expect, it starts out nice and relaxi – oh, wait, no. No, it doesn’t. Straight from page one (well, almost one) the book shoves us into the Masons’ world with a skin-of-your-teeth barreling-down-post-apocalyptic-streets-on-your-motorcycle escape from the masses of the living undead (or is that the unliving dead?). While the book certainly has quieter moments, it never stops to spoon-feed us exposition. Here, Grant’s storytelling prowess is on full display. She never shoehorns backstory into the action, preferring to toss us details while ducking and covering from the zombie hoard. The most beautiful thing is that these little bits of information feel natural, and you just pick them up as though they were real history (well, real history you’d actually want to learn).
We learn more about the Masons as the story unfolds (please note that this is a spoiler-free review [please also note that that sentence was a lie]). We’re introduced to Georgette “Buffy” Meissonier, the tech wizard and head of the Fictionals (the blog’s literature and poetry branch) at After the End Times. We’re also introduced to the rest of the Masons’ blogging crew, and then we’re off on the campaign trail. It’s a mixture of almost Gonzo-esque journalism (though nowhere near Hunter Thompson levels of debauchery and psychosis), Night of the Living Dead, and Grant’s personal flair for drama and comedy.
We soon discover that things aren’t quite so sunny in Zombieland, with sabotage and skulduggery thick on the ground. Avoiding specifics, be prepared to say goodbye to a few characters you’ll likely care about.
Throughout the campaign, we’re treated to an inside look at the world of journalism after the end of times (see what I did there . . . umm, guys?), and you start getting the feeling that the story could have very easily been ripped from the autobiography of a real life reporter (zombies and all).
The politics, the backbiting (quite literally on some occasions), and the tension of a presidential campaign all come through in Grant’s writing with ease, and they keep drawing us in until the last page.
Bear in mind that this story ends on a pretty big cliffhanger, so you might want to set aside enough time in your reading schedule to go through all three books in one go.
Deadline takes a darker turn, and this time the story switches to Shaun’s point of view. There’s really no way to avoid spoiling this, but most (if not all) of book two is driven by the loss of one of the main characters, and Shaun’s gradual psychological breakdown because of it . . . ah, screw it. Georgia dies at the end of book one, and Shaun “copes” with this by having her move into his head, as he starts talking to her ghost, which now lives in his crumbling psyche. This dynamic offers both flashes of humour and moments of heartfelt sorrow, and Grant somehow manages to hit all the right empathetic nerves in her audience.
We’re introduced to a few more members of After the End Times, among which are Rebecca “Becks” Atherton, Shaun’s replacement as head of the Irwins (the action-oriented branch of the blog that sticks fingers and limbs in places they shouldn’t be stuck), and Magdalene “Maggie” Garcia, an incredibly wealthy heiress to her parents‘ pharmaceutical empire, and head of the blog’s Fictionals (now, why would we need a new head for the Fictionals, if we already had Buffy, I wonder). Another member of the team, Mahir Gowda, the newly minted head of the Newsies (the actual news branch of the blog), plays a much more prominent role in the second book, and also helps to lend an international air to the conspiracy at hand.
We go further down the rabbit hole with this book, and we start to realize that the CDC have been very bad boys and girls. We delve deeper into the so-called reservoir conditions that some people have as a reaction to exposure to the KA virus (like Georgia’s Retinal KA that forced her to wear sunglasses almost 24/7), starting to better understand just how the virus works. We even get to meet a real life (well, real fictional life) renegade mad scientist, so that’s fun.
The tension in the second book is quite different from that of the first, opting for a darker tinge of brewing storm clouds (and if you’ve read the book, you’ll get that pun). The book is full of uncertainties, and all perceived safe havens and trustworthy people are cast in a new and uncertain light. Some allies from the first book are revealed to be conniving, duplicitous bastards, and help and refuge comes from unexpected places (and even more unexpected people).
As with the first book, the second also ends on a cliffhanger, and if you thought the first one couldn’t be topped, I have two words for you, my friend: Second Rising. Oh, wait, there’s actually two cliffhangers, but I won’t spoil the second one (at least, not until I start talking about book three). Suffice it to say that death in the world of the Newsflesh trilogy might not be as permanent as you though (and for once I’m not talking about the zombies)
The final book in the trilogy, and by the time we get to it, we already feel like we’ve been on an epic journey with the crew at After the End Times. However, the ride is far from over. As a nice synthesis to the storytelling style of the first two books, the last one is told from both Shaun and Georgia’s viewpoints, alternating between the two with each chapter (you really thought Georgia was gone? Oh ye of little faith in human cloning).
The stakes have been raised significantly by the (until now) unprecedented mosquito vector for the virus – by this point even going outside could lead to a fatal encounter with a buzzing form of the virus. It’s a race against time to uncover more information about the CDC, and why they’re apparently trying to help the virus thrive, and during it all, Georgia (inexplicably) wakes up, apparently from the dead. “How could this be?” I hear you ask. Well, read the book, nosey pants.
In the ensuing rush (which sees Shaun and his crew escape death by inches on numerous occasions), the two “siblings” (Georgia and Shaun) are finally reunited.
The closing act of the trilogy is packed with it’s fair share of WTF!? moments, and I’ll just say that you won’t be even remotely prepared for when you find out the truth behind the virus (I’ll spare you the prerequisite you-can’t-handle-the-truth joke).
This whole story will feel like a long, uphill battle to the final denouement (the character’s struggle, not the actual writing), and you will most likely ignore friends and family for long periods of time until you’ve finished it.
The first words that spring to mind when trying to describe this trilogy are “impeccable world building”. The sheer amount of detail that Grant manages to pack into the story is quite frankly shocking. It feels less like a story you’re reading, and more like you’re involved in a real (and a pretty scientifically plausible) world. The best thing about the backstory to the apocalypse that Grant creates, is the fact that you never feel lost or talked down to. You take in the history of the Rising as the main story unfolds, and it feels so easy and natural that by the end you’re almost surprised that you can walk into any real life building without going through a blood scan . . . it’s unbelievably believable and immersive, is what I’m saying.
As for the story itself, Grant’s research into everything from virology and politics, to weapons and survival techniques, can be seen a mile off. She sure as hell knows what she’s talking about, and this translates to a story that’s told with ease and assured poise (this also means that when the inevitable real life zombie apocalypse goes down, there’s at least one good writer who’ll know how to survive it).
There’s no shortage of humour (of the gallows variety, more often than not), and poignant drama (I can’t remember the last time I experienced an actual feeling of loss for a fictional character). This blend keeps the story on an even course, never slipping into either cliched melodrama, or hokey cheap, gun-toting, one-liner-spouting carnival ride. It’s got serious meat on its bones, both emotionally and from an action-adventure angle.
I’ve thought long and hard about what I was going to write in this section, and quite frankly I was sorely tempted to leave it blank. I love this series so much, and for so many reasons that, were I to list all of them, this review would turn into a Dostoyevsky novel (that’s long . . . I mean it would be long . . . ah forget it).
There was one thing that bothered me slightly, however, and that was act three of the last book. The buildup throughout the first two books (and two thirds of book three) is extremely well-paced and masterfully constructed, giving us just enough to keep us on the edge of our hammock (what? I read in a hammock. Don’t knock it until you’re tried it).
My only problem was that I felt like the denouement of the trilogy was a little rushed. Most of the After the End Times crew are finally reunited, and then the resolution comes in the form of a quick car ride, a verbal showdown with the CDC, and a moderately brief running-away-from-the-undead-hoard-down-a-hallway spiel.
Don’t get me wrong. The ending was very satisfying, but I just feel that it was wrapped up a little swiftly. On the other hand, maybe it’s actually better than Grant side stepped the whole “massive, drawn out showdown between the forces of good and evil” thing. I don’t know. I’m just a reviewer.
The Verdict – 9.5 (Amazing)
– Amazingly detailed world building
– Action, humour, and heartfelt drama are perfectly balanced throughout the trilogy
– The story treads the line between believable and action-adventure with perfect poise and balance
– You actually start developing emotional attachment towards the characters, who never feel like contrived archetypes.
– The pacing and the build-up in tension are perfect throughout the trilogy, never allowing our attention and emotional engagement to wander
– The ending felt a little bit too summary (though no less satisfying)