I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.
When I heard that M.R. Carey was writing another novel in the same world he created for The Girl With All the Gifts, I was quite thrilled: post-apocalyptic scenarios are always fascinating, and this author had already delivered a compelling, chillingly believable one on the premise of an infection by the parasitic fungus Cordyceps, that turned affected humans into a sort of zombies, or “hungries”.
This new novel is set a few years before the events of its predecessor, and shows the changed world in wider details, although it shares the same enclosed, claustrophobic feeling of its companion story: here a mixed crew of military and scientists travels across devastated Britain on board an armored vehicle, the Rosalind Franklin (or “Rosie”), following the tracks of a previous expedition that never made it back to the relatively safe haven of Beacon. Rosie’s crew is tasked with the retrieval of the tissue cultures left by their unfortunate colleagues, in the hope of gleaning some information that might lead to a cure for the Cordyceps plague.
The difficult interaction between the science team and the soldiers escorting them is not helped by the cramped conditions aboard Rosie, a mix between a tank and a mobile lab, while the lack of any appreciable results in the search sets a pall of hopelessness over the general mood. The divide between the two groups is further stressed by the different personalities of their respective leaders, forced to share command of the expedition: colonel Carlisle is a tainted hero of the Breakdown, the time when the plague effectively ended civilization, and he’s weighted down by the memories of what he had to do under orders; while doctor Fournier is a mix between scientist and bureaucrat, more the latter than the former in truth, and a man with scarce-to-absent people skills.
Further friction comes from the presence of the youngest member of the team, teenaged Stephen Greaves: he’s an orphan possessed of a brilliant, if disturbed, mind – despite his young age he’s the inventor of the blocking gel that hides humans’ scent from the keen sense of smell of the hungries, but his introvert, almost autistic behavior had the crew nicknaming him “the Robot”. The only person truly close to him, and the one who insisted on his presence for the expedition, is doctor Samrina Kahn, who has somehow adopted Stephen and managed to establish with him a relationship based on mutual trust. Kahn, however, is now plagued by a problem that might prove damaging for the mission and everyone’s safety: she discovered she’s pregnant…
Where The Girl With All the Gifts dealt with the interaction between the uninfected humans and a group of second-generation contaminated children still in possession of their mental faculties, here the focus is solely on humans; and if the first novel was set in a time in which the Breakdown was already one generation removed, here it’s still a fresh, painful memory: people still remember vividly the life they led before, and this adds to their behavior a poignancy that was almost absent in the people managing the base where Melanie and her companions were being studied. The world that was is dramatically present in the awareness of these survivors, allowing the readers to see more about its collapse and the birth of the new, fragile attempt at a new society that is still in the throes of its birth.
It would be legitimate to believe, or hope, that in the face of such a tragedy the remnants of humanity would regroup and form a more cohesive community, but that’s indeed wishful thinking, as the coalitions aboard Rosie – and the political maneuvering in Beacon – show with tragic clarity: even in the face of mass extinction individuals look for more power, or the assertion of their worth; for supreme leadership or the meaningless praise of academia. The end of this world might be hastened by the Cordyceps infection, but its people can inflict just as much harm as the hordes of hungries roaming the land.
As with the first novel, hope seems to reside with younger people: here much rests on the shoulders of Stephen Greaves, a teenager whose brilliance is offset by enormous difficulties in interacting with others, either physically or verbally – and the brief flashes about his past leave us wondering weather his condition was congenital or the result of the horrifying event that orphaned him. That same removal, however, is coupled with great powers of observation that enable him to somehow figure out his traveling companions and to adopt behavioral patterns that allow him to coexist with them in the stifling confines of Rosie. Stephen ultimately becomes the interface between the humans and the new breed of children born after the plague’s spread, feral creatures that are nonetheless able to create societal rules and to work together – he does not truly belong with either group, and therefore is the one who can attempt to bridge the gap: I’ve wondered more than once if this was the real meaning of the book’s title, rather than the one offered by the circumstances of Stephen’s rescue…
Although Stephen figures prominently in the story, the overall mood of the novel is choral, as the various events are observed through the eyes of several of Rosie’s crew, and this multi-faceted observation helps move the story along especially in the first part of the book, where the going looks a little slow and not much seems to happen: the characters come across in sharp definition and the frictions that move through Rosie like unstable currents make this novel just as much a study of human psychology as a post-apocalyptic drama. Once events start rolling, though, they move at a steady, unrelenting pace toward the final showdown, one that kept me on the edge of the proverbial seat because I was aware of the multiplicity of scenarios that could come into being: what really happens in the end is filled with such moving intensity that I could not help being affected by it, and I realized it was an even more powerful ending than the one of The Girl With All the Gifts.
And as if that were not enough, there is an even more compelling epilogue where the past represented by this story meets the “present” of Melanie’s story and segues into the future, tying all the narrative threads into an amazing, awe-inspiring finale. Should Mr. Carey choose to return to this world for more stories, I will be more than delighted to read them…