This is the most claustrophobic installment yet of Shan’s undead apocalypse saga. Set entirely in the underground lair of B’s nightmare clown nemesis Mr Dowling, there are no wide open spaces, and no natural light. The stink of excrement and blood is everywhere.
As well as the usual lashings of gore, this book has the general ‘yuck’ factor turned up to maximum. There are images to make you gag. I won’t dwell here on the toilet hygiene habit of Dowling’s mutants. Suffice it to say they don’t use Andrex.
When we last saw B Smith at the denouement of “Zom-B Family,” she was being carried off by the mutant babies to Dowling’s lair, having been rescued from the ‘Board’ and Dan Dan.
In this story, she learns of Dowling’s plans for her, and they are of a disturbing nuptial nature. We learn of the origin of the mutant babies, and some of Dowling’s origins, but there is a lot to sketch in still, as with the Dowling/Owl Man/Oystein triumvirate. There’s a suitably messy and violent final chapter and we can see the general direction the narrative will now take. It’ll be a relief to get out in the open again. That’s the main gripe I have with this book. The atmosphere and general stink is oppressive, like being locked in a fetid public loo. There is the usual wild Shan imagination at play, including some trippy scenes of B and Dowling’s mental bonding, and the story moves at its usual cracking pace. It also develops the arc from book one in a satisfying way, with very early scenes revisited and shed light on. This is not an arc which loses sight of its origins. It also prompts us to explore the motivations of its darkest characters. Do we feel sympathy for the Devil?
This isn’t my favourite book of the series, but it is still a wildly entertaining page turner. But if you are going to jump on to this ride there’s only one place to start, which is book one.
Don’t read any further if you are new to Shan’s ZOM-B saga, as this review will be chock full of spoilers….
Beginning with the brutal betrayal at the close of ZOM-B clans, the ninth book in Darren Shan’s ZOM-B series sees B Smith taken prisoner by the vile Dan- Dan into a fortress at Battersea Power-Station. There she finds an unholy alliance between surviving members of the Board, the Klan, the army, Owl-Man, and her Father. Here at this base B must endure her most harrowing ordeal yet, one that will call on every ounce of her undead strength and living spirit.
B faces the emotional torture of facing up to her father and what he is, by showing him what has she become, a repudiation of all he stands for. B also discovers the fate of her mother, in one of the books many unsettling and shocking scenes.
B refuses to join this “axis of evil,” to borrow a phrase, and is so given into the clutches of Dan-Dan. There then follows an extended scene of torture which is pretty audacious for a young adult title. I kept expecting an imminent rescue or reprieve, but B finds no short-cuts from this. It’s not a literal crucifixion but follows the slow torture of this execution, without the reprieve of death. I would caution more sensitive readers (although those most easily offended won’t have made it this far in the series)! However, the scene is not salacious, or cheap, in any way. The focus is on B’s mental, emotional and spiritual endurance, and her repudiation of Dan-Dan’s evil.
Following this, there are more scenes of gladiatorial combat, more wrenching loss, and at the denouement, a siege which for B means out of the frying pan, into the fire…
This is probably the toughest and most unrelenting book of the series yet, but a gripping little page turner that once again shows how Shan is adept at switching from fast paced gore and action to pretty weighty moral content. It’s the latter that is so refreshing. Shan’s treatment of racism in particular, and the theme of the battle of the individual’s moral choices, is utterly refreshing, and timely, in today’s particularly xenophobic, other-hating political landscape.
Roll on” ZOM-B Bride.”
ZOM-B Clans, the eighth in this epic saga of what will be twelve books, does two things very well: it develops the origins backstory of the zombie epidemic including some details on the malevolent Mr Dowling and sinister ‘Owl-man,’ whilst raising the stakes and accelerating the pace as the series progresses towards its denouement.
The book begins with the closing moves of the battle at New Kirkham, a survivor settlement in the country. Shan is good at the theme of difficult moral choices, and B here must decide how to fight for Owl man’s remaining prisoners, and how to deal with the prisoner he and her friends take, the loathsome Dan-Dan. His repellent human villain makes a satisfying return and one of the joys of this series is wondering who, from previous instalments, will pop up next, and how. There is also a tense scene where the New Kirkham survivors debate on the fate of those who have remained ‘neutral’ in Kirkham’s fight with human and non-human monsters. Again, the best moral choice is not the easiest, and as with our most serious choices we have to sweat blood to get there.
Back at County Hall Dr Oystein has more revelations on this war with Mr Dowling and the undead, and some exposition on its origins. Events move to the prisoner exchange at Battersea power station, where a brutal act of treachery and another massive shock for B propels us on to pick up the next book.
As usual the writing is clear and the narrative is fast paced, whilst managing successfully to tackle some weighty moral themes.
ZOM-B Mission is the seventh instalment in this series about the teenage B Smith, a “Revitalised,” an undead-human hybrid that mixes human intelligence with heightened abilities that being a zombie can bring, such as super strength, speed, agility and extended life (these aren’t Romero’s geriatric shufflers!), battling with her fellow revitalised “Angels” to restore order and goodness after an apocalypse of the undead. The “Angels” are under the tutelage of a Dr Oystein, himself a Revitalised scientist from World War Two, and their overall mission is to confront the mysterious evil that seems to be orchestrating the zombie plague, whose figureheads are a gory and grotesque clown figure called Mr Dowling, and a pot- bellied silver-haired tall man in pin-stripes and overlarge eyes called “Owl Man.”
B must also battle her own inner demons; a racist and abusive father has left her a terrible legacy, and following her father she has committed an atrocity for which she now seeks redemption.
‘Mission’ has a pretty big shock early on, and I won’t spoil it, but it is very well done, and involves the demise of one of the series good guys. The story then moves to a mission B and her fellow Angels undertake, to escort a band of human survivors to a human compound in the country, New Kirkham. The compound, although well run, has some deep shadows of unease. B is shocked to find her old demon Racism alive and well and finding a terrible new strength, and aligning with some old foes…
Shan is pretty adept and underwriting his fast paced and gory zombie stories, primarily for young adult readers but enjoyed by a much wider and older readership (including me), with some serious themes on human corruption and evil. It was ever thus with this particular genre (as with Romero’s satirical swipes), but Shan is good and illustrating the insidiousness and creeping nature of such ills as racism, and how passivity is just as destructive as complicity. Here that point is very well made, and we see humanity at its worst, passive in the face of evil or actively engaged in it, and heroically defiant.
I also enjoy the referencing to other zombie fare in these books. So we have a reverent nod to one of the most chilling scenes in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” transmission of infection by a drop of zombie blood that falls from a bird, and the shadowy nature of human compounds of survivors that feature repeatedly in “The Walking Dead” franchise. But this is different from being derivative. Shan’s series, his mysterious demonic foes and zombie-human hybrids are very much his own.
A cracking read, then, and it’s good to see the series both develop its themes with this instalment, and take it in intense new directions.
Warning, key spoiler to the ZOM-B series follows. Don’t read on unless you have at least read the first book in the series, ZOM-B.
B Smith is recuperating with Dr Oystein and the group of thinking, talking undead named the ‘Angels,’ that she can’t quite bring herself to call her friends, for fear of the violent loss she keeps experiencing.
Then, on a routine scavenging mission, it all goes wrong, and she is captured by “The Board,” perhaps the biggest monsters yet of the series by virtue of being human and consciously, deliberately evil. They are the Bullingdon Club of the apocalypse, a collection of the rich and privileged who plan to become the worlds’ masters again, and who seek entertainment through Gladiatorial combat between the living and dead; news of the thinking, talking, ‘Revitaliseds’ has reached them and they want one for their sport, hence B’s capture. Their numbers include a hideous child killer with undersized sailor outfit, and protruding belly, an evil grotesque like Mr Dowling and Owl Man, but again made worse by virtue of being human and having chosen the sickest path imaginable.
The writer is good at linking these instalments into a coherent hall, and there’s fun to be had as characters and locations from previous books return here in a new perspective. So we meet again here human hunters Barnes and Coley, and we find out why there was so much shooting from the HMS Belfry in ZOM-B City.
B’s journey and development makes a satisfying path here as she learns to live with the tension between friendship and fear of loss. It’s the combination between a fast paced narrative and enjoyable, well rounded characters, monsters and humanity, which makes this such an addictive series. I continue to recommend it.
Warning: Spoiler alert. Read ZOM-B before reading this review. Massive spoiler contained.
B Smith has found a home; a leader with a mission from God; A mentor to teach her kick-ass fighting skills. And allies just like her, revitaliseds, zombies with a mind and conscience.
Or has she? If the ZOM-B saga has an over-arching message, it is, find your own way. Do the math. Do the spade-work. Get your hands dirty. In other words, don’t accept answers, or a world-view, on a plate. Test-out. Think. Work it out. If you arrive at a philosophy or faith or political side or world view by your own thinking, by your own testing with mind and heart, well then, you have been true to yourself, and your beliefs should serve you well. Accept on face value the sales patter of another, however, and then you risk integrity, and more.
This message started with the principled teacher Burke in ZOM-B as he challenges B’s racism. It is developed further here, as B wonders whether Doctor Oystein is madman or Prophet. He claims to know the origin of the zombie plague and be on a mission from God to help eradicate it, against the satanic incarnation of the Hellish clown Mr Dowling and his hoodie mutants. B would like to believe him, but Burke’s words, and lessons from her own past, make her leave the Doctor’s safe refuge and strike out again across Zombie infested London. Can she trust what she has been told? B needs to see more of what is out there, and test it out. She will meet old friends; meet new ones, and the titular un-dead baby, who does not in fact make an appearance until the closing chapters of the book.
In this instalment there’s a big focus on religion, or faith. Doctor Oystein has it. Timothy the mad artist has it. B is not sure. She listens, but needs to think it out for herself, test it out in the crucible of a Hellish apocalypse. No answers are served for us in a plate. There’s an ambiguity to it all that keeps you hooked, and is in keeping with the theme of thinking it out for yourself.
As usual the writing is brisk and effective. There are some great set pieces. A race up the London eye, the appearance of the ZOM-B Baby, an attack on an art gallery; these are held in a swell paced narrative that uses its 12 book story arc to maximum effect. You can slowly deepen some mysteries whilst rapidly progressing others.
I don’t know which side the writer will land. I hope he doesn’t, and manages to sustain this tension. This is good, intelligent stuff, all the better for not flying a particular flag. Shan resists the temptation to go all Dawkins or all St Paul on us. His end message, conveyed so well to us by his be-clawed and be-fanged un-dead is, do your own homework.