★★★★ The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey is a perspective-flipping zombie road novel with a very great deal to recommend it. It starts off extremely tight-focused, homed in on one little girl and her experience of her bizarre, locked-box (Pandoran?) school, then explodes outward in a way most zombie stories don’t- digging into the science of the zombie infection, zooming into the epidemic hypocenter, and giving us a haunting sense of closure.
All the gifts indeed. Yet- I can’t say I loved it. I’ll get into why after I say everything that was so good. There’ll be spoiler tags when necessary.
So, Melanie. Melanie is a little girl in a weird little school with soldiers and guns and desk-straps for necks and wrists. “Don’t worry, I won’t bite,” Melanie teases one of the soldiers when he goes, part of a three-man morning team, to strap her in to her transit wheelchair for school.
He shudders away. We get it. And that’s about all you’re given from the blurb, but it’s hardly a spoiler to say Melanie is some kind of zombie. At the least, she’s infectious. To just what level, and what that means for everyone, is what the book goes on to explain- and that’s one of the greatest joys of the book.
Maybe I’m a bit weird in this, that I really like this kind of expository development/explanation of a world. Some of my favorite bits of The Maze Runner (my Maze Runner review here) were the expository explanations of how the maze worked, how the Grievers worked, etc.. Same for LOST, where I loved the world, and WOOL (my WOOL review here), where I loved getting the back story. So know that when I say this- these world-building bits, scattered throughout a novel that turns into a road movie fairly early on, with a good range of fairly normal zombie/post-apocalypse tropes thrown in (Junkers), are absolutely the best bits of the book.
They are original, and to my eye, highly so. Of course we need the plot, escalating tension, near escapes and all that, but they only window-dress the substantial ideas lying underneath them. I may even have issues with the potential realism of these underlying ideas (more later), but who cares- they’re so deeply cool. If the book is made into a movie they will make such great, foreign visuals, that I couldn’t care less about their realism.
So that’s very good. What else is good? Of course I want to say the characters, but the trick here is that the characters changed in a way that didn’t seem natural to me. The book hits a clear tonal change about one quarter in, when it becomes a road movie from multiple points of view (i.e. not only Melanie), and after that point everybody’s personality kind of shifted in a way I didn’t believe. This was jarring and weird for me, and is probably related to the fact that this book started as a short story, confined to the school, which then got expanded.
It didn’t get ironed out, though. Characters changed in the new story, but that didn’t echo backward to the origin. The beginning was extremely locked-in to Melanie’s limited point of view. It’s great. Then, and I don’t think is a spoiler, but rather fair warning, we abruptly start seeing things from more perspectives. We end up getting points of view from 4 other characters.
This ends up inflating the book, in a way I don’t think was strictly necessary. It rounds out the world, for sure, but getting the back story of these folks was largely a distraction to me, and weird after being locked-into (and enjoying) Melanie’s limited view.
On the whole though, it’s a great book, for the beginning and the ending. I could miss out the middle I suppose. You could cut most of it, to be honest, and lose very little but the grind to get to the end. Naturally you need some grind though. 4 stars. Onward for spoilers.
*** SPOILERS ***
I talked about their being a tonal disconnect between the short story origins and the road novel, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the character of Sergeant Parks.
He starts off as an ass, frankly. He is petty, small-minded, sadistic, unable to adapt his thinking, and hateful of a small child.
I can perhaps see an otherwise good guy acting like that, under certain extreme conditions of stress and duress, but much is made later on of what a solid, decent, adaptable, good guy Sergeant Parks is. What? Are we talking about the same guy who left Melanie locked in her chair overnight, because she said his first name? Is it also the guy who said to her, “I will f*cking dismantle you?” because she did something else equally innocuous.
These are the actions of a psycho Nurse-Rached type bastard, who he later proves to absolutely not be. He later on is understanding, adapts fast, and never shows signs of sadism or petty cruelty again. It doesn’t sync up. He made a great villain for the beginning- but unfortunately I think someone like that is just irredeemable. So M. R. Carey had to flat-out change him authorially, for him to become a hero. No other way, so it’s hand of god. That stuck in my craw. My theory is- Carey liked the villain so much from the short story, he couldn’t get past that for the novel. As the first quarter goes, he’s the main conflict, so we need him to be evil.
Then we get another conflict, and so Parks transitions abruptly to the hero. And that other conflict is the Junkers.
I don’t like this, and didn’t like it from the moment they popped into the plot. They are coincidence and deus ex machina, and their appearance seconds before Melanie is about to have her brain dissected is unbelievable. The chances of it are just impossible. Again, here I see the transition from short story to novel. In short story, Melanie probably is just going to get dissected. The author had to flip that. How? Through random chance.
OK, so we’re allowed one random chance in a book, as our inciting incident, maybe you’re saying? Perhaps. It is disappointing though, and kind of unnecessary. In fact, completely unnecessary. Justineau, Melanie’s teacher who she becomes protective of, was on her way to save Melanie. Why not have her save her? That would be organic.
Instead we Justineau striving to save Melanie, at the exact moment the Junkers attack. It’s a double-whammy, and we need both at once for Melanie to escape.
Yet, as I think about it, it may have been the only way to get that specific group, including Caldwell, the scientist who wanted to dissect Melanie, into the same escape group as Justineau. In another theoretical version, in which Justineau saves the girl but there are no Junkers, there’s no way Caldwell could come with them. They’d be in opposition. Which means we’d never get all the scientific exposition I loved so much. In that case, the pressure driving from behind would not be Junkers, but the base itself. So also, there’s no way Perks would be on board, and no way Melanie and Justineau could survive for more than a day before getting killed/recaptured.
So yeah, that would be a different book. Hmm. I dunno. Maybe something like the Junkers are necessary, but they are so fundamentally unbelievable. Here are survivors who are able to herd vast numbers of zombies into an attack, using bulldozers and other such, because they wear tar on their skin to bock any signals that they are humans. They do this successfully.
I just don’t buy this. They are attacking, moving, shouting, driving, making heat and light, but they don’t get killed by the zombies. Our guys, out wearing the bestest chemical blockers on their skin, still have to walk softly and carefully through fields of sleeping zombies, in case they wake them up. What about the Junkers avoids this fact? It may be possible to drive zombies, but why wouldn’t at least some of the zombies just turn and eat them? Is tar really a more effective sweat-blocker than high-tech stuff from the base? Are they sitting in their bulldozer driving seats perfectly still and silent?
But, later on we see grenades are an effective distraction. So zombies would be swarming those bulldozers like they were a bowl of tasty grubs. So all that makes it a triple unbelievable whammy. But, sigh, it gets the story on the road. And it needs to be on the road to get to the fruiting fungal tree.
Fruiting fungal tree
I love the corpses fruiting. I love the tree. I love that it takes fire to unleash the zombie seeds. I may not buy it, but who cares? I don’t see how a fungus that works in ants- which probably evolved to hunt ants so effectively over millennia – could abruptly come up with the human global killer through one massive genetic evolution. It’s like going from apes to humans in one generation. So complex, and also wholly original. Having all the bodies conjoin like that, where does that happen with ants?
It doesn’t. But, I don’t care. It’s awesome. Which brings us to the ending, and how it treated Caldwell.
Caldwell the scientist is the one pitched as evil. She is dissecting these kids, ohmigod, she’s so cruel and awful. What a cow. She has to be stopped.
Uh, excuse me, what? Shall we not try to save THE ENTIRE HUMAN RACE then? For this reason throughout the book I came to really dislike Justineau. She became the petty and sadistic one. Maybe that was the point? I feel a bit queasy though because it seemed like I was being steered to like her, and dislike Caldwell. But dammit, I’m on Caldwell’s side. Sorry kid, we need your brain. It sucks, I know.
That the infection turns out to be irreversible and incurable is irrelevant until after we find that out. Really, everyone should have been supporting her. Melanie’s a nice kid, and she’s useful, but if she held the secret to saving the race, I think we’d better go with that.
By way of justification, Justineau (similar words, no?) is given a very brief motivation for loving Melanie so to the exclusion of all else- she killed a kid once while drunk driving- but I find that a bit pat. Can she not see there are larger things at stake?
So I sympathized with Caldwell. She was doing what needed to be done, with maximum economy. She was the only realist in the group. And she got a poor end. But, overall, it led to an ending that was very strong.
Justineau gets what she wanted. It’s her own kind of prison, and I can roll with that. She helped betray her own race, so she’s doomed to a lifetime with this new one. It’s a great ending, having this human 2.0 deal go forwards like this. I think these new peoples are gonna have a helluva time getting over their hunger, though. Just because humans 1.0 won’t be around anymore, they’ll still be voraciously? hungry- it seems to be inbuilt.
They say any society is 3 meals away from revolution. For them it’ll be 1 meal, and therefore pretty unlikely to result in any kind of civilization success. I guess no vegetarians either, so they’re all eating grub-cereal and live meat. It’ll mean lots of rats and pigeons (dinner for one), or big communal feasts where they all take down like a cow together. A death to most cooking tv shows.
So again, by way of summary, I liked the book a lot. More because I loved the clinging fungal strands of zombie exposition, like an infection themselves within the implausible plot-flesh of the road novel, trying to take over. So- really great ideas, modestly couched. Now go forth and read it.