Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts

Girl_with_GiftsI’m reviewing The Girl with All the Gifts finally after a long absence – I read this book for the first time last February and I re-read it recently a few days ago. Re-reading it affirmed that it is almost certainly one of my favourite entries into post-apocalyptic fiction I have encountered so far.

The Girl with All the Gifts is at its root a very simple story. Humanity has been decimated by a fungal infection that turns host humans into mindless zombies. We meet Melanie, a young girl who seems, at first glance, to just be going to school in this weird, destroyed shadow of society… but there’s something not quite right about this “school” and the students within. She waits for “school” by waiting in her cell; she’s strapped to a wheelchair for “class” and is treated as a mixture between an unexploded bomb and an abomination by the “school’s” military garrison.

The first quarter of The Girl with All the Gifts does an impeccable, wonderful job of building up that everything is not as it seems with Melanie and her classmates. They’re not normal children but something much worse that everyone should be fearful of. Over the course of the first quarter of the book we notice some things that are off, and not quite right. It’s not a school but a military base – what purpose does this base serve? And where are the children going?

It’s atmospheric, ominous and it draws you in to find out why. That is why I consider The Girl with All the Gifts to be a brilliantly written book – M. R. Carey’s prose is taut but not cold with clinical distance, but maintains a sense of warmth and foreboding that draws the reader in. I found it to be a very, very readable book – on my recent re-read I managed 100 pages in about 40 minutes. Then there’s genuine tension and horror as the reader travel outside of the base, through some thrilling and visceral action, throughout the ruined United Kingdom, to apparent salvation.

When I read this book last year I read it immediately after The Day of the Triffids, and there’s a lot of similarities – nature reclaiming the world after an ecological, civilization-ending event, with redoubts of humanity scattered. The fungal-based “hungries” are pretty analogous to Triffids too, at least that was my interpretation, especially hungries progressed to the end-state, and those that progress to a something akin living plant, where the Ophiocordyceps has totally hotwired the host’s mental functions. The victims stop acting like people but rather shells of people infested and animated by the desires – basest and simplistic as they are – of the Ophiocordyceps, with nothing human remaining.

The story itself, once we break out of the base, remains tight.  There’s only a small repertoire of characters we experience Carey’s ruined world from the perspective of, and it’s just about right. Melanie is a special case, of course – she’s a “hungry”, as victims of the Ophiocordyceps fungus are termed, but one that has retained her mental faculties. She’s of prime importance to the voice of cold, clinical science, Dr Caldwell and forms a warm, emotional bond with her teacher, Helen Justineau. Melanie’s relationships with Justineau and Caldwell underpin a significant difference in how she and her fellow kind, mentally-cognitive hungries, are perceived: while science classifies them as dead, for the fungus has permeated the nervous system, Justineau relates on an emotional level to Melanie’s exhibition of characteristics that remain human in appearance.

That, I feel, is the main point of The Girl with All the Gifts – what really is humanity? How can humanity process a change of the nature the fungal outbreak to the very fabric of the species? The tussle between Justineau and Caldwell, and the schools of thought they represent, leaves a longing impact in the reader’s mind – at least, it certainly did for me.

And The Girl with All the Gifts uses a foe that is both novel to zombie fiction but also terrifying – a fungal outbreak. This is a welcome change from the “escaped bioweapon” or “extra-terrestrial invasion” that can be played a bit thin for the premises of post-apocalyptic fiction. The fungal infection is a totally natural occurrence and one humans have no defence against, ultimately. And Carey’s inspiration comes from a terrifying extrapolation of a fungus, the Ophiocordyceps, that already exists and just asks one question: what if this fungus attacked humanity? This clip from Planet Earth is widely reported to be the direct inspiration for The Girl with All the Gifts; it’s even referenced in the text:

The Girl with All the Gifts is not perfect, but it’s close to. The journey to Beacon, humanity’s last, apparent, refuge, is ultimately a trip in vain – is there even a Beacon to to return to? But the ending of The Girl with All the Gifts reflects that – the group’s journey to Beacon reflects humanity’s journey against Ophiocordyceps. And I wish The Girl with All the Gifts expanded a little more into this universe that’s created as I feel it’s so rich and ripe for exploration.

Girl_with_Gifts_FTICharacter-wise, the narrative focuses on two, maybe three, of the main characters to which we join upon the journey, with the rest less fleshed out. Dr Caldwell is “cold science” to Helen Justineau’s “hot emotion”, and the conflict between over Melanie is palpable – again, it’s easy to see both sides, but it’s a square impossible to circle. I feel some of the other characters – Sgt Parks and Gallagher – are less well-definied, almost empty stereotypes, and the attempts to develop their stories is impeded by a break-neck plot; The Girl with All the Gifts takes place over several days, once the first act is broken out of. Does this change of pace fit well? Not perfectly, no.

I do feel the ending does come together in a more reflective and conceptual way than the rest of the book perhaps leads into, but it does leave the reader pondering. Like a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction there is no “magic bullet” to save humanity, and to its credit The Girl with All the Gifts ratchets that emotional impact up to the fore in the ending, presenting a genuine choice for humanity: wither and die or embrace the inevitable. For its first act alone, The Girl with All the Gifts is rightly lauded, but the book as a whole remains a thought-provoking and deeply memorable read.

Oh, and no, I’d not played The Last of Us before reading this book, and likely won’t.


Book Review: Metro 2033

Metro 2033 von Dmitry GlukhovskyOne of the most satisfying things I can say I’ve done recently is go bookshopping with a friend – bouncing ideas off each other for books to read is a great feeling. My wallet? Less enthusiastic but book shopping is always a worthy cause to empty one’s vaults on.

I digress: Metro 2033 was a punt that I decided upon in the raw heat of the moment, browsing the Waterstones shelves. I’d heard vague hints that it was a good book, good enough to spawn a series of acclaimed video game adaptations, which, alas, I have not played.

Right from the start, Metro 2033 throws us into the fascinating and well-realised world of the Moscow Metro, roughly 30 years after a nuclear Armageddon wiped the surface clean of conventional life and left the survivors huddled in underground stations.

First thing that I liked? That in itself is a very believable setting and premise, that survivors would use underground railway stations as bomb shelters. There’s a historical precedent for it – London in the 1940s, so why not Moscow in the early 2000s?

Second thing I liked – this story is set in Moscow, and written by a Russian author. Already these are two fairly innovative steps in terms of post-apocalyptic fiction, which largely centres around the United States. Seeing the apocalypse from a different perspective – Russia, in this case – was a welcome change to the usual fare.

So already we’ve a good start with Metro 2033. It continues to get better with the steady revelation of the internal machinations and politics of the metro, which becomes a contained microcosm of the society that fled into the tunnels as the bombs fell. There’s the communist Red Line faction, the fascist Fourth Reich, and other factions and, indeed, independent stations to no faction they belong. This shrunken, cramped analogue for real society was compelling and engaging – it was also a very human and plausible thing to portray – each station became a nation-state or a vassal in an alliance, and they battled, as “real” nations would, over resources and ideology.

And then there’s the protagonist, Artyom, who is given a quest that feeds into his sense of adventure and takes him all around the metro itself, and this is how we explore the system and discover the intricacies of the settlements and factions contained within. It’s a nice way of doing it.

Metro 2033 was translated from Russian to English so I made a conscious effort to read the book carefully. Yes, the translated prose was a little heavy in places, but strangely I felt compelled to read on because the setting, story was so gripping. I do feel that some of the action was a little fuzzy and lacked a bit of clarity, but that’s not to say it didn’t make a hearty attempt at being atmospheric – whether this is an issue intrinsic in the source Russian text and exemplified a tad by the translation is another matter, but while the prose was a little meandering in a few places, that almost helped the mood the book was trying to portray.

The quest Artyom undertakes seems simple enough – take a message of impending catastrophe for the metro from his home station, VDNKh, to the political centre point of the metro system, Polis, in search of aid. And the quest branches nicely, and we’re introduced to many interesting characters and situations that really showcase the diversity of the metro system. And the twist at the end, realised when Artyom is powerless to prevent the course of events he has worked to start, was a wonderful surprise that twists the horror aspects of the story right around. The way Artyom becomes homesick for VDNKh, after his time adventuring the metro, is relatable and well-realised.

The book is refreshingly self-aware, too. Artyom becomes aware toward the midpoint of proceedings that he has an intangible “shield” around him that protects him from the course of events – events that, by all rights, should’ve killed him but through happy co-incidence, don’t. That’s a neat way of the author acknowledging that without the protagonist, and if they did come to a sticky end as in several instances they really should, there would be no story to tell.

And Artyom is also mindful of the fact that many of his companions who join him end up dead as a result of their accompanying him, which allays a criticism I had to start with that a lot of the ancillary characters Artyom meets seem to be fairly transient. But that’s also fine – they serve a purpose for the story and the quest and my criticism was allayed by Artyom’s recognition of this. It serves the book well.

So overall, Metro 2033 was a thrilling and atmospheric read that I found thought-provoking and expectedly deep. It’s certainly a title I feel would benefit from a re-read in the future but overall a definite innovation and classy entry into the post-apocalyptic lexicon. I’m excited for the rest of the series now!

Book Review: Domain

DomainIt’ll come as no surprise to readers that I am a big fan of author James Herbert’s work. I’ve steadily read a good number (but by no means all) of the 24 novels he published during his lifetime and they all share a common attraction – they’re visceral but approachable horror novels that tell a great, engaging story; like King’s work, there’s no pretence that these novels are literary, but they’re great fun, and, surprisingly, they retain their macabre punch even decades after publication.

There’s some memorable scenes in Herbert’s work, from the opening of a tramp being viscerally devoured by mutant rats in The Rats, the population of Bournemouth – 140,000 people – committing suicide by walking into the sea in The Fog and the multitude of supernatural scares in the brilliantly creepy The Magic Cottage, which I reflected upon previously with The Rats. Domain is no different.

Domain is the final instalment in the “Rats Trilogy”, which I had been both excited and a little apprehensive to read, following The Rats and Lair. I was excited to read it because I’d enjoyed the previous two books; but apprehensive because I was nervous that Herbert wouldn’t quite be able to deliver the post-apocalyptic disaster. It seemed out of his reach almost, especially as the previous books were gloriously timeless in their portrayal of a contemporary reality upended by the mutant manifestations.

But I was wrong. Domain portrays the moment of nuclear apocalypse with possibly the most powerful invocation of a Herbert trope I’ve yet read. Herbert’s books like to divert to vignettes of characters orphaned from the main plot but who are directly impacted by the book’s source of horror. In Domain, we follow people just going about their ordinary business, they have hopes, dreams and wants, and we see their lives cut short by nuclear Armageddon.

Indeed, one of the most powerful of the vignettes is that of the survivor of the attack who seems to be readying her family for breakfast – it seems a normal day but there’s a sense that something’s not quite right and the revelation that her family are just dead bodies tied to their chairs is the cherry on the top of a fantastic, powerful scene that evokes not just horror but the sense of grief a survivor would feel, and a very relatable, but creepy, way they may deal with it.

It’s powerfully done, and it helps Domain stand out to me in a crowd of supernatural-themed stories that, while effective and engaging, don’t entirely gel with me; it’s Domain’s portrayal of post-apocalyptic survival that adds greatly to its influence on me. There’s a lot I’ll take from Domain I can imagine! While I have grown to like Herbert’s supernatural and spooky stories, it’s his grounded-in-reality horror novels that really hit paydirt for me. I’m yet to read a better example of this than Domain.

Being a later work of Herbert’s, Domain does benefit from his accrued experience. The characters we are introduced to seem, in some regards, more rounded – the “everyman” hero in Domain being Steve Culver, a pilot who rescues government man Alex Dealey from the collapse after the bombs hit, and it’s this unlikely pairing that drives the story into its first forays. Culver is revealed to have motives and complexity that are a little unusual in a Herbert novel. That’s not to say we don’t have characters who seem to exist purely to propel the story, but as I explained above, that’s fine and it’s almost refreshing to have characters for this purpose, as the story is that compelling for me to forgive it. Culver and Dealey seem the most developed, with the rest of the cast seeming ancillary. But that’s fine!

Again, Domain is dripping with Herbert’s apparent experience – he knows his niche with Domain and plays it fully. There’s scenes that are uncomfortable to read even in 2018 – in one of the vignettes, a lonely man ends up killing a cat; in another, a survivor of the nuclear attack goes to the toilet, is almost raped before her and her attacker are overcome by the rats – but I accept them, even if they brought about discomfort because Herbert’s work portrays a visceral, instinctive warts-and-all portrayal of the situation. Yes, these things are seedy, grubby and unpleasant – and luridly described – but it’s hard to imagine them not happening.

Domain takes place mostly in underground settings, and this claustrophobia is palpable. It brings on the inevitable, and the imagery is superbly done – gritty, grisly and grotesque. I did wonder whether Domain brings anything new to Herbert’s formula of mutant rats going awry; I feel it brings the notion to its logical conclusion. There’s a certain sense of inevitability, a certain “so where are the rats?” but when they do arrive in each encounter it’s Herbert’s chance to indulge in some of his goriest, grisliest and most visceral and effective horror, especially when combined with the atmosphere stoked up just prior. It’s a very popcorn-esque way of building the tension but it’s there regardless.

That’s not to say there’s not plenty of horror, there is, and the ending is, as I have come to expect with post-apocalyptic fiction, uncertain. And rightly so, there can be no “happily ever after” when civilization is destroyed.

So, is Domain my favourite Herbert novel so far? It was very good. Is it my favourite of the Rats Trilogy? I’m not so sure – I feel that the “cosy catastrophes” of The Rats and Lair, while Herbert’s apocalyptic writing was surprisingly effective and powerful, edge it just slightly with me. Yeah, at times I feel the middle of the book sags, meanders but it’s a gripping and riveting meander that just allows James Herbert to do his best. But that’s not to Domain’s disservice, it’s a fantastic book.

February Reading Roundup

Photo 01-02-2018, 2 01 36 pmIt’s a bit of an enviable situation to be in but I have recently found myself in possession of a lot of books that I want to read so I thought it would be at least somewhat interesting to examine my current “to-read” pile so I can both weep at how long it’s going to take me (though I hope to speed up!) and reflect on what it is I’m reading lately! As I said previously I’m not doing a reading challenge so numbers aren’t so important but these are the books I want to get read this month or next so let’s take a look:

Artemis by Andy Weir – I really enjoyed The Martian when I read it a few years ago; I feel it does so much right for science fiction – it’s accessible, enjoyable while at the same time not compromising at all in the actual science behind it. Being a fan as such, I am eager to see what Andy Weir has done next and to see he has set his next piece on the Moon – a bit closer to home – is certainly something I’m excited to read.

Fatherland by Robert Harris  – Alternate history has been something I’ve wanted to dip my toe into for a fair while. Last year I read and enjoyed SS-GB so it makes Fatherland, which is regularly rated as one of the top books in the alternate history genre, a no-brainer. I’ve also had The Man in the High Castle on my radar for a while but I felt like starting with Fatherland.

Sahara by Clive Cussler – Cussler is one of those authors who is prolific but I’ve never actually experienced any of his work, so this was another massive punt from his back catalogue that I’m looking forward to enjoying. I generally read a lot of thrillers and I’m fairly enticed by the premise of Sahara. I haven’t seen the apparently-disappointing film version though, so again I feel if I am going to approach the story I’d rather experience the book! Sounds exciting!

Domain by James Herbert – I managed to find this book for sale for £1 in a discount bookstore in Doncaster when visiting a friend and I simply couldn’t say no as I really love the work of James Herbert. I’ve read and thoroughly the previous two books in this series, The Rats and Lair and they’re enjoyable, gruesome horror tales. From what I understand Domain takes a post-apocalyptic twist to this entire formula. Herbert’s work is always gripping and engaging so I expect no less from Domain

Wool by Hugh Howey and Metro 2033 by Dimitry Glukhovsky – these are two books I am linking together because they’re both books I’ve heard of and had on my radar for being notably-good examples of post-apocalyptic fiction. Wool is one that’s been on my to-read list for what seems like time immemorial and it’s highly recommended so it’s about time I stopped thinking about reading it and got to it. Metro 2033 is slightly different; I’m aware of the well-received video games based on these novels but I’m unlikely to play them. I feel seeing perhaps a less Western-centric take on post-apoc (Metro 2033 is set in Moscow) will be a different and interesting perspective

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – this book was an early birthday present from my aforementioned friend (we went book shopping and it was awesome) – and the concept intrigues me. What tipped me over the edge was that my friend recommended it despite the fact he traditionally doesn’t read science fiction; indeed, my research showed me that the author deals also with fantasy which is my friend’s preferred genre. It seems a good point in which to be introduced to Tchaikovsky’s work so we will see!

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown another one I paid £1 for, this is essentially literary roughage for me – I read Inferno in 2016 and I enjoyed it but was fully aware that it was anything but literary, and largely not great writing. But despite that it was an enjoyable, breezy read so I’m not averse to another one from the series. I feel that as a reader who writes it’s important to also read some less good books to glean tips and tricks and I hope that the notch on the bedpost I’ll get from The Da Vinci Code will add to that experience.

So that’s pretty much the state of my to-read pile as it stands! I’m eager to get on with it so hopefully that eagerness will translate into more reading getting actually done!