A review of Darren Shan’s “Zom-B: Goddess.”

The final instalment of Shan’s compulsive 12 book ‘Zom-B’ serial is a heady brew.
It piles betrayal on betrayal until the undead, feisty teenage protagonist is driven to take the mother of all drastic steps.  What follows is a game-changing development that you will not have seen coming.  It’s not a ‘twist’, per-se, more of a huge step in an unexpected direction, that nevertheless has imaginative and narrative integrity with what has gone before.
The gory set pieces and sudden and brutal offing of familiar characters, hallmarks of the series, continues to the end.  And as usual Shan’s monster’s gallery of mutants is deliriously entertaining, from the flying, piranha tooted ‘babies’ to the horror clown of Mr Dowling.  Not to mention the clawed, long toothed brain munching zombies themselves.
The writer also develops political themes on apathy and activism he began to explore in the first book with B and her racist father and her initial reluctance to challenge him, and where that leads.  Here this is applied to the apathy and indifference to society as a whole to the injustices and evils in its midst, and where that leads.
Warren Pleece’s narrations have also been a welcome addition in the series.  They remind me of the black ink illustrations to the original Doctor Who ‘Target’ novelisations.  Simple yet effective snapshots of the action to compare with your own imaginings.
The whole series is great for young adults and older adults alike, and it’s great to see it brought to such a non cop-out conclusion.

A review of Darren Shan’s “Zom-B Fugitive.”

Teenager Becky Smith, an undead activist fighting for the overthrow of the undead army that infected her and took over the planet, is back.  This time she’s horribly alone, on the run from friend and foe alike.  Have to be extremely careful of spoilers, as we are now in the end-game of this 12 book serial, in the penultimate episode.  B is horribly mutilated, even for an active zombie.  Tortured and twice badly disfigured, she must run from her ex-‘husband,’ the crazed clown Mr Dowling, keeping in existence (staying alive doesn’t seem appropriate) whilst uncovering the vast conspiracy that has wiped out most of the human race.  For someone now used to shocking betrayals, there are even worse on the way.
The writing is brisk and the action fast paced.  Teenagers will warm to B’s struggle with identity, whilst taking reassurance that appearance and body image are inferior to character, and what’s in the heart.  In our media’s ever worsening obsession with imposed desirable body images and ‘norms’ of physicality, Shan’s stories can act as a welcome antidote.  As such they join a rich horror tradition where the monsters are smarter and more noble than their human counterparts.  A cracking story in its own right, a brutal shock and cliff-hanger set the scene nicely for the final episode.
Search my blog for ‘Darren Shan’ to read reviews of the rest of the series.

 

A review of Rich Hawkins’s”The Plague Winter”

Horror writer David Moody runs “Infected Books,” a publishing company devoted to horror fiction.  Infected Books are completing a year long monthly series of novellas of zombie fiction by different horror writers.  “The Plague Winter” is Rich Hawkins’s contribution.

I haven’t read Hawkins’s”Plague” novels that this derives from, but on the strength of this I will most certainly be checking them out.  So not having read this this review will be not be informed by the wider canvas of this particular apocalypse.  But from what we can gather from the novella, humanity is done, wiped out by a hideous infection that transforms people into deformed, tumescent, zombie like creatures.  But that’s not all.  Their flesh is likely to erupt at any given moment into gaping, extra mouths full of alien teeth and livid red, suckered tendrils.  If you think “The Thing” meets “The Walking Dead” you won’t go far wrong.

In this novella a grandfather (Eddie)  shepherds his grandson (Sam) through this nightmare landscape.  The grandfather scavenges for food (and whisky to keep his alcoholic demons at bay), returning to the cottage where he guards Sam under lock and key.  They apocalyptic setting, scenes of scavenging, and father/son relationship is reminiscent of “The Road,” and even has a staccato writing style not dissimilar to Cormac McCarthy’s.  But it is a good, and skillful borrowing.

It is a brisk, riveting read and has a sucker punch at the end. Recommended, and a real hook to the rest of this series.

 

A review of the Audio-Drama Podcast “We’re Alive”

We’re Alive is a zombie apocalypse audio drama that ran for 4 seasons that ran between 2009 – 2014. A side story continuation ‘Lockdown’ finished has just completed as a podcast mini-series (April 2016).

And what a piece of work it is.  Starting life in season 1 it immediately established its credentials as a high quality audio drama with laudable production values.  An army sergeant Michael Cross (Jim Gleason) is pulled away from his studies on a college campus when he’s called up to deal with apparent violent riots.  Said riots turn out to be the rise of the undead.  Michael is reunited with his army buddies Angel (Shane Salk) and Saul (Nate Geez) and they realise that the established order is crumbling rapidly and they need to find a safe haven.  Banding together with fellow survivors Pegs (Elisa Eliot) and Riley (Claire Dodin), and eventually stumbling across gravelly voiced veteran Burt (Scott Marvin), they hole up in a tower block which they turn into a fortress.  This is the location of the first 2 seasons, which are centred on the defence of the tower block from monsters.  These monsters are the infected, but also humanity at its most monstrous in the form of “The Mallers,” ex-convicts who occupied a Mall and represent human survival at its most vicious and violent.  One of the Mallers leaders, ‘Scratch (Jenna McCombie),’ is a human nemesis whose battle with the tower dwellers becomes intensely personal when her brother is killed in an invasion of the tower.  Scratch will take her battle to the very end of the finale of season 4.

So season 1 starts feeling pretty generic, survival horror with a military bent, a template that has been well established.  As the story deepens over the next few seasons, however, we find that have bonded with main characters, and are engrossed with the developing lore and story arc of the series.  The creatures mutate into a range of monsters, from lumbering behemoths to smaller faster creatures.  They seem to be guided by a hive mind intelligence, and who is the tattooed figure who seems to appear as a watcher and leader of the undead army at key moments in the story?

The origin story of the creatures is hinted at in the early seasons and developed more fully in the later ones.  Whilst I’m not convinced that all the strands of this hang together, it makes for an intriguing and suspenseful listen.

The series has some stand out set pieces that live in the memory; the initial outbreak; the discovery of a grisly arena where survivors are brought to die apparently for the creatures’ amusement; battles at the tower; encounters with the behemoths; a chase through a prison with hideously mutated creatures, and more.  The story keeps its locations pretty tight and does not become too sprawling and fragmented.  We move from the tower to a colony, a series of safe houses, and war-torn streets and locations in between.

The cast are uniformly brilliant.  Michael is a solid lead, a sympathetic and very human leader who clings to his identity as a soldier.  Burt is a memorable fan favourite.  Gravelly voiced doesn’t begin to describe his tones.  It sounds like he’s gargling with gravel.  He’s an old school gun fetishist and veteran.  There’s a scene where Scratch almost breaks Burt by torturing his gun (named Sheila after his dead wife) which is probably one of the series most suspect scenes.  The female characters are varied and interesting and fight on an equal footing with their male counterparts (the apocalypse is an equal opportunities employer).  Pegs is maybe overtly cookie at times but still someone you are always glad to get back to.

Scratch is a stand out performance, Hell-bent fury and icy cruelty.

What I love about this whole series is that it is an amazing achievement that is testament to the democratic creative power crowd funding today.  Production values are cinematic in scope, and the intention to be a “theatre of the mind,” wholly immersive audio, is a successful one.  The sound effects and musical score are solid and laudable and together with the top notch voice acting, pull you in.  The snarls and roars of the creatures, especially the behemoths, are particularly memorable, and not what you want to hear in the dead of night.  It’s great that we can enjoy the whole series free (get it here) and the whole enterprise deserves your support, if you care about stories and particularly love this genre.  You can pledge support here.

A review of Adam Bakers’ “Killchain.”

Horror writer David Moody runs “Infected Books,” a publishing company devoted to horror fiction.  Infected Books are roughly half way through a year long monthly series of novellas of zombie fiction by different horror writers.  “Killchain” is Adam Baker’s contribution.

Adam Baker has written a four book series of novels that tell the story of an infection that literally falls in to Earth from the stars, and spawns a change in people transmitted through scratch or bite.  They become a host to a  mutagen that shoots tendrils, spikes and tumorous growths, all metallic in nature and appearance, through the human body, whilst the personality is destroyed and the creature becomes part of a hive mind and a ravaging, snarling inhuman killer.  Book one, “Outpost,” is set on an oil rig in the Arctic as the infection hits civilisation, it is followed by “Juggernaut,” a prequel of sorts set in Iraq as a group of CIA hired mercenaries are tasked unwittingly to investigate one of the ground zero’s of the infection, Book three, “Terminus,” is set in an irradiated New York as a military hired rescue team go deep into the subway system to find  a Doctor who just mind have found a cure to the infection, and “Impact” sees the crew of a  downed military flight try to survive both the desert and the infected. For more on the books see the author’s website “Dark Outpost.”

There is little sign of hope that humanity will beat the infection in Baker’s stories.  They are incredibly bleak in tone, in that you feel it is a given that the cockroaches are humanity’s successor.  His lead character’s are usually female and they offer a tough goodness that offers some redemption as a testament to humanity, but it is a testament that is doomed not to be heard or remembered.

His prose style follows James Ellroy’s clipped staccato style.  The invention, gore and nature of the monsters are all a cut above and reference the Thing, the ‘fast’ undead of World War Z/ 28 Days Later, and David Cronenberg style body horror.

In his contribution to “Year of the Zombie,” Adam Baker sets his story in another of his infection’s Ground Zeros, where the infection has fallen to earth from downed satellites and space stations, this time in Mogadishu.  We begin in the home of a local resident, Daniel,   who learns that quarantined infected has broken out of a stadium where they were being held, and the city is close being overrun.  But before he can flee he is faced with the sudden intrusion of the CIA into his home in the form of agent Eliza, part of a kill-team tasked with eliminating a Russian Official, and  her “Mechanic,” a mercenary named Ben.  They are later joined by Sanjeev, an “asset” brainwashed into martyrdom through carrying out a human bomb mission against said Russian official.

The story of the infection in the city is the background to the story of Sanjeev’s mission, told in a tense POV from his hidden earpiece camera, watched carefully and guided by radio by Eliza.  Then there are the bluffs and betrayals the trio in the room play on each other.  As the situation in the city deteriorates, so does the situation between them in the room.

It’s a strong, black espresso of a horror story, gripping and bleak.  A recommended read, but I would say for genre fans only.

 

 

A review of Frank Tayell’s “Surviving the Evacuation: Book One; London.”

Bill Wright is the journal keeping narrator of this, the first book in a continuing series (currently reaching Book Seven).

He is trapped in his London apartment with a broken leg.  Why trapped?  Outside a zombie apocalypse rages, having originated in New York, before inevitably reaching UK shores.  Bill worked for the government and had a hand in designing an evacuation plan, which does seem to have gone catastrophically off the rails.  Eventually escaping his apartment he begins a nightmare journey of survival, and he uncovers some frightening truths about his government and it’s agendas.

The book has a strong opening using a reliable convention of an injured and confined narrator coming to terms with a terrible new world (think Day of the Triffids, 28 days Later and The Walking Dead with their originally injured and confined protagonists), and strong scenes of the originating outbreak in New York.  But there’s a lot of thuddingly generic survival horror as Bill moves from one siege situation to another, dispatching zombies (yes, with a blow to the head) and navigating a ruined urban and rural landscape.  There’s a good set piece in central London where zombies breach street barricades en masse, but a lot of it Bill on his own foraging, fighting off zombie attacks and reminiscing.  There is very little interaction with other characters.  The book needs more narrative variation.

But Bill is a strongly likeable lead, believable and solid, and Tim Bruce’s good audio book narration suits him perfectly.  The ending is also strong and satisfyingly bleak, as Bill uncovers the source of the outbreak and his government’s own agenda in the evacuation.  There are the hints through the book as to where it is going, but nothing that makes the shocking denouement predictable.

At times I thought I would not read any more of the series due to the above described flaws, but onm teh final analysis this is a series I will be returning to.

A review of Darren Shan’s “ZOM-B Family”

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.”