After an accidental hiatus from reviewing, I’ve decided that it’s time to put butt in chair and hands on keyboard again. I almost didn’t. For the record I never stopped reading, just writing about what I read. There were several excellent novels that were consumed during my quiet period and I may try to review those novels properly, but given the amount of time that has passed, it’s probably more realistic to say that they’ll appear in an upcoming Trending Ten post. Which brings me to the book that snapped me out of my malaise and reminded me why I enjoyed reviewing and interacting with other readers, writers, and reviewers.
Sometimes a novel, just kicks your legs out from under you and holds you down until you’ve devoured every single word. And then you’re sad because your plate is empty and you’re already on the hunt for another novel to take the edge off of the hole closing the back cover left inside you. M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts was that kind of novel for me. Carey gifts readers with an unexpected coming of age story that is surprisingly intimate, heart warming, and sobering despite the zombie tropes and apocalyptic scenery. Fans of Neil Gaiman should take special note as Carey’s prose has the same simple elegance and off-handed lyricism as Gaiman’s best.
The Girl with All the Gifts follows Melanie, a precocious little girl who lives her life under lock and key, and only allowed out her cell for meals, showers, and her daily lessons. If the cell wasn’t enough, she is strapped to a wheelchair any time she is allowed beyond its four walls. Carey leaves readers in the dark about Melanie’s true nature and the real function of the prison in which she is kept, but not for long. We find out the truth even as Melanie does. The world as we know has ended, destroyed by a exotic fungus that has crossed the species barrier turning the infected into mindless, killing machines, that serve only to spread the fungus to new hosts. These “hungries” are reminiscent of the infected in The Last of Us, but don’t worry about the story being derivative. Carey packs the novel with deep characterization and an amazing amount of emotional heft all while delivering the horror and action sequences that fans of zombie and apocalyptic fiction will expect.
Carey goes to great lengths to humanize his cast, even the hungries are not without very real sympathetic moments. Hungries are not evil they are simply a danger of the environment and the characters view them like one would a dangerous animal. But there are moments of surprising humanity even among these shambling once-people. When examining evil, one has to look to the human cast but even then, there is no black and white. In a world built on the ashes of the one before everything is a shade of gray. All of the principal characters are fully realized people, with flaws both large and small. Even the primary antagonist isn’t someone you can truly hate, because despite the horrific nature of her plans, the rationale behind them is hard to dispute. You’ll come to care about characters you least expect to, and you’ll empathize with them all.
Based on what I’ve said so far, you might think that The Girl with All the Gifts will certainly be missing the suspense, tension, and action that you would expect from a novel about the end of the world and a hungry zombie (no pun intended) around every corner. Carey’s pacing mirrors that of a thriller, with short chapters, and plenty of tension. I devoured the novel and was truly sad to reach the final page.
Carey gets everything right, but it’s his prose that makes The Girl with All the Gifts such a remarkable novel. Sparse and beautifully clear, Carey’s prose manages to have weight despite the narrative structure that resembles nothing so much as a classic fairy tale. He manages more with the negative space in the narrative than almost anyone, drawing the reader into the story by tipping his hand just before the reveal so they’re almost always in on the plan, but almost as often I found myself surprised just as readily as I would be in any thriller. The result was an absolute pleasure to read and I plan checking out Carey’s Felix Castor novels a run in the future. Carey’s turned in one of the best books I’ve read this year, and will be a major player in the Trending Ten post to come. So if you’re on the fence about this one hop down and join the party. You won’t regret it.