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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Juliet Marillier: BLACKTHORN & GRIM SERIES

Author:  Juliet Marillier
Series:  BLACKTHORN & GRIM
Plot Type: Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence3-4; Sensuality3-4; Humor—2 
Publisher:  Roc 
          Dreamer's Pool (11/2014)
          Tower of Thorns (11/2015)
          Den of Wolves (11/2016) (FINAL)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 12/19/2016 to include a review of Den of Wolves, the third—and FINAL—novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels

                         NOVEL 3: Den of Wolves                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
Feather bright and feather fine, None shall harm this child of mine...
Healer Blackthorn knows all too well the rules of her bond to the fey: seek no vengeance, help any who ask, do only good. But after the recent ordeal she and her companion, Grim, have suffered, she knows she cannot let go of her quest to bring justice to the man who ruined her life.

Despite her personal struggles, Blackthorn agrees to help the princess of Dalriada in taking care of a troubled young girl who has recently been brought to court, while Grim is sent to the girl’s home at Wolf Glen to aid her wealthy father with a strange task—repairing a broken-down house deep in the woods. It doesn’t take Grim long to realize that everything in Wolf Glen is not as it seems—the place is full of perilous secrets and deadly lies.


Back at Winterfalls, the evil touch of Blackthorn’s sworn enemy reopens old wounds and fuels her long-simmering passion for justice. With danger on two fronts, Blackthorn and Grim are faced with a heartbreaking choice—to stand once again by each other’s side or to fight their battles alone.


MY REVIEW: 
     The bulk of the story sets Blackthorn and Grim the task of working at separate ends of a mystery while being physically separated in the process. At the core of this tale is Cara, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the wealthy  landowner, Tóla. In fact, the book begins with a description of Cara's situation, and we don't even look in on Blackthorn and Grim until the third chapter.

      Cara has an almost mystical attachment to nature, particularly to the birds and trees of her father's landsthe forests of Wolf Glen. She can often be found high up in a tree with birds sitting on her shoulders and in her hair. Secretly, Cara speaks to the trees and the birds, and they answer her: "I will protect you. I will guard you." Cara knows better than to let her father or her aunt in on her secret conversations. Both of them want her to be more "normal," to become more sociable, to make small talk, and to make herself ready for a marriage that will be arranged by her father. Unlike Tóla and Aunt Della, Cara believes that, "It was so much easier to talk to trees than people." She would rather sit by herself creating intricate carvings of birds from pieces of wood from the forest. Cara's only friends are her maid, Alba, and her father's forester, Gormán. 

     One day, while Cara is sitting up in her favorite tree, she looks down and sees a scary man standing below her perch. "He was wild-looking, filthy, with matted hair halfway down his back, a bristling beard and crazy eyes, and he was staring at the scattered remnants of the heartwood house." The heartwood house is also at the center of the plot. Fifteen years ago, Tóla hired a local builder to construct a heartwood house to bring luck to his family. The building of the house is based on an old, local folktale, and it must be built according to excruciatingly exact specifications, which the builder claims to know. Unfortunately, halfway through the project, the builder ran off one night and never returned. The heartwood house is now a ruin, falling apart and being overgrown by the forest. Cara is terrified when the man looks up and sees her, and she shouts out for her maid to bring Gormán to rescue her from the wild man. Immediately, Gormán whisks Cara away to the house, and the next morning, her father takes her to Prince Oran's castle at Winterfalls, where he drops her off and never returns—not even for a brief visit.

     Now, how do Blackthorn and Grim get involved with Tóla and Cara? Cara is extremely unhappy at Winterfalls and won't speak to anyone, so Lady Flidais asks Blackthorn to try to help her to settle in at the castle. Meanwhile, Grim gets a request from Tóla to come to Wolf Glen to rebuild the heartwood house under the direction of the wild man, who (Surprise!) is the original builder who has now returned from his run-away travels. His name is Bardán, and he has some deep, dark secrets.

     As usual, the chapters move back and forth between Cara's third-person perspective and the first-person voices of Blackthorn and Grim. Naturally, fey magic is involved in the plot, as well as human vindictiveness and cruelty. What is unusual about this book is that Blackthorn and Grim spend most of it far away from one another because Grim has to promise Tóla to work from dawn to dusk on the heartwood house until it is completed. He leaves every day before sunrise and returns—exhausted—to quickly eat supper and fall into bed. This is the first time the two have been apart for an extended period, and each misses the other terribly.

     Back at Winterfalls, Prince Oran receives news that Lord Mathuin of Laoisbitter enemy of Blackthorn and Grimhas invaded the territory of Lady Flidais' father, forcing her parents to take refuge in a neighboring kingdom. Suddenly, large numbers of strange, fierce warriorscalled the Swan Island Menbegin to arrive at Winterfalls. The men's faces are heavily tattooed—each showing the distinctive features of an animal (e.g., dog, wolf, hawk). Blackthorn meets two of them after a mysterious scuffle in the woods near her cottage, and they tell her that they are at Winterfalls at the behest of Prince Oran. (Later, Blackthorn will learn more about that mysterious incident in Dreaming Woods and how it directly affects her.)

     So...back and forth we go, with Grim trying to figure out Bardán's story and Blackthorn trying to help Cara learn to speak up for herself. Each night before Grim falls asleep in exhaustion, he and Blackthorn exchange information about what they have learned. Soon, the reader can draw some conclusions as to the real story of what went on at Wolf Glen fifteen years ago, although it takes Grim and Blackthorn a bit longer. Remember, we have the luxury of seeing the whole picture, while Grim and Blackthorn have to put the puzzle together a piece at a time, each gathering clues from a separate source. 

     A side effect of the separation is that both Blackthorn and Grim learn the depth of their feelings for one another and finally get up enough nerve to communicate them—first in writing, then in spoken words...and FINALLY in actions. (Yea!)

     Near the end of the story, Blackthorn's will power is gravely tested. Back in book one, Conmael, the fey lord who rescued them from Lord Mathuin's prison, forced Blackthorn to agree to remain in the cottage by the Dreaming Woods and to help anyone who asks for her help. She is not allowed to seek revenge on Mathuin, even though he murdered her husband and child and threw her into his filthy prison. In the previous two books, Blackthorn had a very difficult time keeping that promise, and in this book, she has to make the hardest decision of her lifetime. 

     The themes of the book involve the importance of truth, the damage done by deceit and treachery, the satisfaction that comes from well-applied justice, and the dangers of blind vengeance. This series has always been about the importance of being governed by love, trust, and compassion rather than by rage, hatred, and bitterness, and that conflict is resolved once and for all as this series ends. One might quibble that the final conflict is resolved very quickly, but I think that's the whole point. Blackthorn has to learn the lesson that Conmael has been trying to teach her, and this is the best way to show that she finally does. My advice is to trust Marillier, because she knows exactly what she's doing here.

     This is most likely the final novel in this series, although Marillier doesn't explicitly state that in the book or on her web site. I have enjoyed all three of these novels because of Marillier's masterful story-telling skills, her creative world-building, her quirky characters, and her fantastic hero and heroineboth of them so courageous and good-hearted, yet flawed in such truly human ways. This is a terrific series that I recommend without reservation.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Den of Wolves on the novel's Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.


FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Den of Wolves is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.  

                         WORLD-BUILDING                         
     The series is set in early medieval Ireland. This is a feudalistic society, with peasants and merchants living on farms and villages located on land belonging to kings, princes, and chieftains who hold town meetings to hear grievances and dole out fines and punishments as needed. Naturally, some members of the noble class are fair and just, while others are corrupt and cruel. Land disputes among the chieftains are common and frequently result in border wars. The author promises that each book will have fairy tale and mystery elements, and that is certainly true in book 1.

     The main characters are Blackthorn, a wise woman (magical healer) and Grim, a giant of a man who becomes her traveling companion after they both escape from imprisonment by one of the more evil chieftains. Both have dark and tragic pasts that cause PTSD-type flashbacks. Blackthorn's tragedies have left her a bitter and angry woman who yearns for revenge on the chieftain who destroyed her life. When Grim's memories of his past are triggered, he bursts into monstrous, uncontrollable red rages that can result in death or injury for the unlucky person who provoked Grim's fury. 


     Click HERE to read an on-line "Conversation with Juliet Marillier" in which she discusses the series.

                        NOVEL 1:  Dreamer's Pool                         
     Here is Marillier's explanation of the premise of this novel (from her website): "What if you were locked up awaiting execution and a stranger offered you a bargain that would set you free? What if accepting bound you to certain rules of behaviour for seven years, rules you knew you were likely to break within days? And what if the penalty for breaking them was to find yourself back where you started, eaten up with bitterness and waiting to die?" 

     Marillier tells her story in the first-person voice from three points of view: Blackthorn, Grim, and Prince Oran of Dalriada. The chapters alternate among the three voices.


     As the story begins, Blackthorn and Grim are behind bars in squalid cells within a filthy prison owned by Lord Mathuin, a sociopathic chieftain. Blackthorn has been there for nearly a year, beaten and abused almost daily, and she is barely hanging on to her sanity. The only thing keeping her going is that the law requires that a prisoner must be allowed to plead before the council before the end of a year of imprisonment. Blackthorn is counting the days until the midsummer council, where she will publicly denounce Mathuin and his dirty deeds. Then, days before the council meeting, a brutal prison guard tells her that Mathuin has ordered that she be executed the next day so that she will never get a chance to tell her side of the story. 


     That night, a fey lord named Conmael appears with a proposition: He promises that he will save her life if she agrees to leave Mathuin's territory and travel to Dalriada giving aid to anyone who asks for her help. If she agrees to remain in Dalriada as a healer for seven years, continuing to help anyone who asks for it, she will be totally free of any obligation to him. If, however, she uses dark magic or refuses to help someone, he will add another year to her sentence each time she does so. If she makes more than five of these mistakes in judgment, he will put her back into Mathuin's prison to face her certain death. Conmael promises to help her escape and to provide her with food and shelter.


     Throughout her imprisonment, Blackthorn (who has used two other names before this one) has had a frenemy relationship with Grim, a silent hulk of a man who spends his time muttering and murmuring to himself and staring at Blackthorn. When 
Conmael destroys the prison, Grim helps Blackthorn escape while he tries to save the other prisoners. He then tracks down Blackthorn, planning to watch over her and keep her safe. Obviously, he has strong feelings for Blackthorn. Although Blackthorn doesn't want his company, she realizes that his following her is a cry for help and that she must heed it so that she doesn't break Conmael's rules.


     The two head north to Dalriada, specifically to Winterfalls—Prince Oran's territory, where Grim fixes up the cottage and takes on heavy jobs for local farmers and merchants while Blackthorn heals wounds and illnesses among the locals. Soon, the two become involved in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a young girl just before they arrived in Winterfalls. Working together, they figure out what happened and serve as witnesses when Prince Oran holds a trial and metes out punishment. 


     Meanwhile, Prince Oran has agreed to marry Lady Flidais, a young noblewoman he has never met. He has, however, seen her portrait, and the two have exchanged letters and self-written poems. Based on her appearance and her words, Oran has convinced himself that Flidais is truly his soul mate. Unfortunately, when Flidais arrives at Winterfalls, she is nothing like the woman in her letters. That woman was kind and thoughtful and a lover of nature, just like Oran. The woman who comes to Oran's home is mean-spirited, petty, and passive aggressive, generating negative feelings and uneasiness in everyone she meets. What is Oran to do? He knows that he must marry Flidais because he has promised both his father and hers that he will. But Oran is certain that something is dreadfully wrong. When he sees how clever Blackthorn and Grim were in solving the case of the missing girl, he goes to them with his problem.


     The novel focuses primarily on Blackthorn and Grim and is essentially divided into three parts: two brief opening chapters describing Blackthorn and Grim's miserable prison existence and their escape; a longer section (the bulk of the book) that follows the pair as they walk to Winterfalls, settle down on in a cottage on the edge of an enchanted forest, and solve the case of the missing girl; and a short (too short?) final section in which they resolve Flidais and Oran's situation. Although what happened to the missing girl is magic-free and relatively easy to predict, the mystery of Lady Flidais is filled with magical twists and turns. Each time I thought I had it figured out, more details emerged, sending the investigation in another direction. Marillier is a terrific story teller who has a talent for weaving together fairy tales and mysteries and giving familiar folk tales a new twist. In this novel, the theme is transformation of several kinds, both real and magical. 


     Marillier's two main characters are exceptionally well drawn, each one having a distinctive voice. Refreshingly, they are not young, blushing, whiny naifs, but mature adults who have weathered some serious storms. We soon know Blackthorn and Grim so well that we empathize deeply with the tragic past events that still drive their emotions and keep them from developing friendships with anyone but each other. Blackthorn's history (which is finally provided towards the end of the book) has made her a voice for justice for women in this male-driven society. She is willing to stand up to chieftains and princes in defense of down-trodden and abused women no matter what the cost—and it costs her a lot. We don't learn the details of Grim's tragic past in this book, but it must be a doozy because he still lives with sweat-soaked night terrors and red rages that take him to the brink of insanity. 


     Oran, too, is a well-developed, if less dramatic, character—a strong, handsome, sensitive prince right out of a fairy tale, but riddled with doubts about his ability to rule and scared to death over the mystery of what is happening with Flidais.


      This is a strong beginning to a new series that will continue on with the two tragic lead characters solving more magical mysteries while dealing with ghosts from their pasts. In future books, Blackthorn must continue to rein in her desperate need for revenge against 
Mathuin and try not to break Conmael's rules. Grim has two impossible tasks: to keep his temper under control and to hide his deep feelings for Blackthorn. I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens to them in the book 2. 


     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Dreamer's Pool on the novel's Amazon.com page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.


                         NOVEL 2: Tower of Thorns                         

PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Award-winning author Juliet Marillier’s BLACKTHORN & GRIM series continues as a mysterious creature holds an enchanted and imperiled ancient Ireland in thrall. 

     Disillusioned healer Blackthorn and her companion, Grim, have settled in Dalriada to wait out the seven years of Blackthorn’s bond to her fey mentor, hoping to avoid any dire challenges. But trouble has a way of seeking out Blackthorn and Grim. 

     Lady Geiléis, a noblewoman from the northern border, has asked for the prince of Dalriada’s help in expelling a howling creature from an old tower on her land—one surrounded by an impenetrable hedge of thorns. Casting a blight over the entire district, and impossible to drive out by ordinary means, it threatens both the safety and the sanity of all who live nearby. With no ready solutions to offer, the prince consults Blackthorn and Grim.

     As Blackthorn and Grim begin to put the pieces of this puzzle together, it’s apparent that a powerful adversary is working behind the scenes. Their quest is about to become a life and death struggle—a conflict in which even the closest of friends can find themselves on opposite sides.

MY REVIEW: 
     Just as Blackthorn and Grim begin to relax in their cozy woodland cottage, their lives are disrupted by Prince Oran's request that they accompany his family to his father's castle for several months. King Ruairi must travel out of the kingdom, and he wants his son to rule temporarily in his place. Because the Prince's wife, Flidais, is expecting a baby, the royal family wants Blackthorn in attendance. And, of course, where Blackthorn goes, Grim follows.

     In the novel's prologue, we meet Lady Geiléis, chieftain of Bann. Marillier drops us into the middle of her unhappy life, giving us enough details to know that she and her kingdom are dealing with a serious magical problem and that she plans to use the King's absence for her own purposes. Marillier divides the chapters among three perspectives: Geiléis' third person voice and the first person voices of Blackthorn and Grim. 

     The novel has two story lines. First, there is Geiléis' problem. In a stone tower surrounded by a tall, thick hedge of poisonous thorns, a monster wails and rages during all of summer's daylight hours. His cries are so loud and so laden with violent emotion that they have all sorts of terrible effects on everyone who hears them. From the beginning, it is obvious that Geiléis is not telling the whole truthnot to the Prince, not to Grim, and not to the reader. She claims that the monster can be slain only by a willing woman, but that's not the whole story. In Geiléis' chapters, she tells the real story a few paragraphs at a time, whispering her words in a voice that only the monster can hear. So, the reader learns most of the truth as the plot advances, but not all of it. That doesn't come until the big showdown scene that resolves this story line at the end of the book. 

     Soon after Blackthorn and Grim arrive at the King's castle, one of Blackthorn's close childhood friends comes striding down the road. Flannan, a traveling scholar, is overjoyed to see Blackthorn because he thought that she died alongside her husband and child when their village was burned down 13 years ago by the evil Mathuin, chieftain of Laois (whom we met in the first novel). Soon, Flannan draws Blackthorn into a complicated plot to rise up against Mathuin and expose his sins to the other chieftains. If Blackthorn agrees to join Flannan's network of spies, she will have to leave Grim behind because she refuses to drag him into a situation that might (and probably will) end with her imprisonment or death. As Blackthorn works on Geiléis' monster problem, she constantly worries over what to do: join Flannan and get her long-overdue revenge against Mathuin or go back to the peaceful cottage with Grim and wait out her seven-year contract with Conmael in which she swore to forgo vengeance, do good works, and avoid dark magic.

     The two story lines play out separately, but by the end of the book, they merge. In the first novel, we saw Blackthorn and Grim as relative strangers who were thrown together in the tumult of their shared prison experiences and by their escape to Dalriada. In this novel, we see them begin to function as a team, figuring out the truth and the fiction of the legend of the monster in the tower. It is obvious that the two care very much for one another, so Blackthorn has great difficulty in making her decision as to whether to become a part of the scheme proposed by her good friend, Flannan. And Grim has trouble sharing Blackthorn with Flannan, whom he sees as an untrustworthy interloper. We also learn the gruesome details of the incident in Grim's past that caused him so much pain that he can never speak or think of it without going into a Berserker rage. 

     The deepening of Blackthorn and Grim's relationship is actually a third story line, as both continue to tiptoe around each other's secrets from the past and work together to survive this adventure. In fact, their friendship is at the heart of the entire series. At this point, what is Grim to Blackthorn? Early in this book she asks that question of herself: "If this were an old tale, what name would I give Grim? The bodyguard? The companion? The protector, the keeper? The friend? He was all of those and more." It is obvious to the readerbut not yet to Blackthorn or Grimthat their relationship is probably going to take a romantic turn, but that will have to wait until they can sort out the raging emotions related to their tragic pasts and learn to trust one another with their innermost fears. At one point, Grim muses, "We're cursed, her and me. Cursed to a life full of nasty surprises. Soon as you start thinking it's plain sailing ahead, the worst storm in the world blows up. Still, a man can hope. If not, what's the point of going on?" And it is this hope that sustains both of them: Grim's hope for a better life, and Blackthorn's hope for revenge against her bitter enemy, Mathuin. Until she can get that out of her system, there isn't room for any other emotion. Here's one thing to keep in mind: pay attention every time Grim sums up a situation (in his own mind, not necessarily in spoken words) and then mutters, "But what would I know?" Grim has to learn to speak up and let Blackthorn in on his very intelligent thoughts, and she has to be much more open with himmore intimate emotionally, if not physically. That's when they will truly become a team. 

     Although it's obvious from the beginning that something bad is going to happen to Grim if she goes after the monster in the tower, the actual details are impossible to predict (at least they were for me). It was easier to spot another villain, but that still didn't spoil the story because Marillier has constructed such a great plot and created such wonderful characters. Even though Geiléis does some underhanded things, your heart will break for her and for her monster. After reading the very first page, I couldn't put this book down. 

     Marillier includes a full list of characters at the beginning of the novel, so it's easy to jog your memory when several characters from the first book are mentioned in the narrative. I definitely recommend that you read Dreamer's Pool before you read Tower of Thorns. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Tower of Thorns on the novel's Amazon.com page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

M. R. Carey: "The Girl with All the Gifts"

Author:  M. R. Carey (pseudonym for Mike Carey)
Title:  The Girl with All the Gifts
Plot Type:  Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy (with zombies)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—2 
Publisher:  Orbit (6/2014) (available in hardback, e-book, and audio; paperback edition is due 4/2015)        

     If you think you've read every type of zombie novel possible, think again, because this novel is as thrilling and inventive as any I've read. Although the story does contain its share of violent and gory encounters, its primary focus is on the relationships among a small group of survivors. Here is Carey's take on zombie fiction: "I think zombies attack our sensibilities from two different directions. They’re still recognisably, undeniably us, but they’re two other things besides—corpses and animals. They remind us simultaneously of our origin among the beasts of the field and our destination under it. That’s why the moments in zombie narratives that really punch me in the guts are the moments when we’re made to see the spark of human consciousness and awareness still alive in the rotting animal carcass." Click HERE to read Carey's entire post on Orbit Newsletter. To read or listen to an excerpt from this novel, click HERE to go to the book's amazon.com page and click on either the cover art or the audio icon. A movie version of the novel is currently in the works.

     The 2012 anthology, An Apple for the Creature contains Carey's Edgar Award-nominated story, "Iphigenia in Aulis," that introduces us to this world. Here's what I said about that story in my review: "I'm hoping that Carey turns this mythology into a series. For me, this is the best story in the book, with an intricately devised mythology, sympathetic characters, and a nicely twisted ending. Who knew that all of that could be accomplished in just 36 pages?" Click HERE to read my entire review of this anthology.  

     UPDATE: Click HERE to read my review of Carey's next novel, Fellside, published in April 2016.

            WORLD-BUILDING            
     Twenty years ago, a powerful fungus infected the majority of the population, taking over the brains of its victims and turning them into mute and mindless creatures who live on the flesh and blood of humans and animals. The deadly fungus is Ophiocordyseps unilateralis, which is an actual parasitic fungus that, in our real world, is nicknamed the zombie ant fungi. Click HERE to see a creepy video of a cordyseps attack on an ant. This video—part of a David Attenborough Planet Earth nature documentary—was the catalyst that triggered Carey's mythology for this novel. It is also referenced in the novel. 

     The survivors call the victims hungries. For the most part, the hungries have only two states: the rest state, in which they stand motionless, and the hunting state, which is triggered by a loud sound, a quick movement, or the smell of prey. At night, they can detect the heat of a live person or animal and zero in on them with ease. The hungries ignore one another, but they are extremely attracted to live humans and animals. Once the hungries scent prey, they move very quickly—so fast that they can outrun any human. The survivors have come up with an e-blocker, which gives off a bitter, chemical scent and completely masks their human odor. This allows them to move amongst the hungries without being detected, as long as they move very slowly and make no loud noises.

     The story is set in England, just north of London. The first third of the novel takes place on a small army base where Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a research scientist, has set up a laboratory to examine the brains of a particular strain of hungries: high-functioning children who have retained the ability to speak, to think, and to learn. She hopes that by dissecting their brains, she can find a cure. Caldwell considers the children to be scientific subjectsnot people, and her laboratory made me think of the Governor's fish-tank wall in The Walking Dead: "Brains in jars. Tissue cultures in which recognizably human limbs and organs spawn lumpy cloudscapes of grey fungal matter. A hand and forearm—child-sized of course--flayed and opened, the flesh pinned back and slivers of yellow plastic inserted to prise apart muscle…"

     Sergeant Eddie Parks is in charge of the base. He and his men have made a series of grab-bag raids on near-by towns to find children for Dr. Caldwell's experiments and to gather food and supplies. Here, Parks describes the children: "Oh, they're still flesh-eaters. Still react in the same way to the smell of live meat, which is the sign by which ye shall frigging well know them. But the light inside their heads didn't go out…or not all the way out. They were living like animals when the grab-baggers found them, but they rehabilitate really nice and they can walk and talk and whistle and sing and count up to big numbers and all the rest of it." Parks is a career soldier who does his job without much introspection. He never forgets that the children he captures are hungries and is constantly aware that even though they appear to be intelligent, they would eat him in a minute if they got free if he wasn't wearing e-blocker.

     The children are housed in locked cells, and each time they are removed from their cells, they are held at gunpoint and then strapped into wheelchairs. Each day, the children are wheeled into a classroom, where they receive a classical education: Greek and Roman mythology, higher-level mathematics, world history and geography, and all the other subjects they would take in a normal school. Although they have a team of teachers, their favorite is Miss Justineau who treats them more kindly than the others, reading them stories and answering their questions. These children have the same pale, cold skin as the mindless hungries, and though they are well educated and well spoken, they lose their civilized behavior the moment they smell human sweat, at which point they turn into feral monsters, intent only on feeding. (They aren't called "hungries" for nothing.)

     The star pupil (and lead character) is Melanie, a ten-year-old with a genius-level IQ. She has a major crush on Miss Justineau, and dreams about a happy future when she grows up and gets to leave her cell. You see, in the beginning chapters of the book, Melanie doesn't know that she is one of the hungries. As Carey explains in an on-line interview, Melanie is "an innocent who is also a monster but doesn’t know that and has to learn what it means."

     As the story begins, Melanie has lived her entire life in what we would consider to be a claustrophobic world: "the cell, the corridor, the classroom, and the shower room." But to Melanie this seems perfectly normal, a place where she feels secure and safe from outside dangers. During the first third of the novel, Carey shows us this world through the eyes of Melanie, Justineau, Parks, and Caldwell. Then, unexpected events quickly and dramatically thrust Melanie and the others outside the steel door into the dangers of the outside world, and we realized that this is a coming of age story as Melanie adapts to new challenges and finds her place in this new world.  

            STORY SUMMARY AND REVIEW             
     Early in the story, a group of junkers attacks the base. Junkers are rogue survivors who have chosen to live away from the clusters of survivors who are under army rule. They smear tar and foul-smelling substances over themselves to kill their human odor and roam the countryside, taking what they find and leaving no survivors. When they attack the base, just five people escape: Melanie, Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, Sergeant Parks, and Private Gallagher. They commandeer a Hummer and head towards Beacon, the town in which they all lived in before being sent to the base. When the Hummer breaks down, they are forced to proceed on foot—a dangerous journey, particularly since they are low on both food and e-blocker. The road-trip story line follows the desperate group as they tangle with groups of hungries, try to find food and shelter, and deal with some major social issues. 

     Dr. Caldwell, whose character veers close to the mad scientist trope, is determined to get hold of Melanie so that she can dissect her brain. All of her thoughts and actions are related to her experiments, and she shows little interest in anything else. Miss Justineau, on the other hand, defends Melanie and refuses to allow Caldwell to touch her. Sergeant Parks is just trying to keep everyone alive. Between Parks and Justineau there is a slight pull of attraction after awhile, but that's mostly because they begin to tolerate each other's opinions and idiosyncrasies and because Parks learns that Melanie is, in truth, very different from the rest of the hungries and that he can trust her. Private Gallagher, a naive young man born after the plague began, just follows orders and hopes for the best. Gallagher's life and luck can be summed up by his misspelled tattoo: qui audet piscitur—who dares fishes (which was meant to have been qui audet adipiscitur—who dares wins). Carey's approach to characterization reminded me of Stephen King's The Stand as his characters make the best of their dire circumstances while dealing with each other's often-contradictory personality traits. Each character is fully developed, and their distinctive personalities and interactions are the backbone of the novel.

     Melanie is the star of this road-trip show. The scenes in which she takes in the outside world for the very first time in her life are some of the most powerful in the book. As the group trudges along, Melanie sees firsthand that some of the information she learned in her classes is true and some of it isn't. For example, she recognizes flowers and birds from the pictures she saw in her science books, but she realizes that the cities and towns she learned about are long dead and empty, their citizens having fallen victim to the infection. Melanie is a delightful young girl, smart as a whip and better educated than either Parks or Gallagher. She takes in new information and makes solid inferences, quickly making herself valuable to the group by saving their lives on occasion and by acting as a scout (because she can walk among the hungries without any problem). One of Melanie's favorite myths is the story of Pandora's box, which serves as an important metaphor in this novel.  

     Moments of dark humor pop up in a few scenes. For example, when Parks is lecturing his small group on how to kill or disable a hungry who attacks them, "He catches the eye of the hungry kid. She's watching him as intently as the others…It's a little bit like a cow listening to a recipe for beef stew." And when Dr. Caldwell practically worships an ultramicrotome that she plans to use to examine slices of hungries' brain cells, all I could think of was that silly song from Evil Dead the Musical: "Do the Necronomicon."

     Carey tells a gripping and powerful story, showing us this world mostly through Melanie's eyes as she deals with an overload of new information and experiences. Hers is a world of monsters, both human and inhuman: "The infection was bad. So were the things that the important-decision people did to control the infection. And so is catching little children and cutting them into pieces, even if you're doing it to try to make medicine that stops people being hungries." This isn't a straightforward horror novel, although it has some horror-filled moments. It's a coming-of-age story in a horrific post-apocalyptic world. The old world is long gone, and it's time for Pandora to open a new box. 

     I recommend this novel to anyone who is looking for a fresh approach to undead fiction. (Note: The "z" word is never used in this book.) Melanie is a terrific character, as are her companions. 

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from The Girl with All the Gifts on the novel's Amazon.com page where you can click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.