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Thursday, June 1, 2017

M. R. Carey: "The Boy on the Bridge"

Author:  M.R. Carey (pseudonym for Mike Carey)
Plot Type:  Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy (with zombies)
Publisher:  Orbit (6/2014) (available in hardback, e-book, and audio; paperback edition is due 1/2018)    

     Carey sets this book in the same world as his 2014 novel, The Girl with All the Gifts, but before the action in that book took place. Click HERE to go to my review of that novel, where I have included an in-depth description of the world-building.

     NOTE: You should definitely read my description     
     of the world-building before you dive into this novel.     

     I will say that the action is set in a post-apocalyptic world that has been decimated by a fungal plague that turns people into flesh-eating monsters called “hungries.” This novel does not have quite as much human/hungries violence as The Girl with All the Gifts, but the hungries are always out there, so the survivors must always be on the alert.

     From the author of USA Today bestseller The Girl With All the Gifts, a terrifying new novel set in the same post-apocalyptic world.  

     Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy. The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world. To where the monsters lived.

     A team of scientists and soldiers sets out from Beacon, one of the last survivor settlements in England, headed for the Scotland to retrieve caches of tissue samples left behind by the last, ill-fated expedition (which never came back). The travelers are crammed into the Rosalind Franklin (Rosie), a mobile science lab to which we were introduced in The Girl with All the Gifts. Rosie is a “land leviathan,” an impenetrably armored tank/truck with heavy treads and lots of firepower. She can accommodate a crew of twelve with her twelve bunks (tiered three high), a single shower, a single latrine, a small laboratory, a communications closet, and a turret. You can imagine that it will be difficult for twelve people to live alongside each other in this claustrophobic container as it bumps across hundreds of miles of rough terrain. Here, Carey gives us a powerful description of this new and terrible world: "The cities and the towns are changed beyond measure. They were built for people, and without people they have no identity or purpose. They have lost their memory. Vegetation is everywhere, softening the man-made megaliths into new and unrecognisable shapes. Office blocks have absent-mindedly become mesas, public squares morphed into copses or lakes. Emptied of the past that defined them, they have surrendered without protest, no longer even haunted by human meanings."

     Human relations are particularly difficult because the two teams have little or no respect for each other. The soldiers think the scientists are weak and useless, while the scientists view the soldiers as crude and ignorant (although they are happy for their protection when they go out to retrieve samples). “The civilian and military commanders are simply not fit for purpose. They hate each other and they avoid the crew—the alternative being to force them to take sides.”

     What makes the situation even worse is that the team members all know that they are not the top performers in their given fields. They are not the worst, but they are not the best. "Twelve men and women in a great big armoured truck are not a huge risk, when all is said and done. They carry a great many hopes and dreams with them, but if they should chance to be lost, their loss can be borne. They know very well that they are expendable."

     Here are the members of the members of the Beacon Muster (the name of the mission team).

The Scientists
Dr. Alan Fournier, civilian commander with overall responsibility for the mission’s success: He is a self-important prig who shuts himself in his little closet, refuses to go outside Rosie, and argues with just about everyone. As the plot advances, we learn some dark secrets about Fournier that change the course of the story.

Dr. Samrina (Sam) Khan, epidemiologist: Khan is really the true leader of the civilians, particularly when they go out in the field. Unlike the others she does not shy away from confronting Fournier and McQueen Fournier when she disagrees with them. Unfortunately for Khan, she discovers very early in the mission that she has a huge problem: “Seven weeks into a fifteen-month mission, ten years after the world ended and a hundred miles from home, Dr. Samrina Khan is pregnant. But this is not Bethlehem, and there will be no manger.”

Dr. Lucien Akimwe, chemist: He stays in the background most of the time so we don’t see much of him. He gathers spinal fluid from the hungries captured during their sorties. He is having an affair with one of the soldiers.

Dr. John Sealey, biologist: He is a timid man who wants to be perceived as fitting in with the military men (but is ultimately unsuccessful). He is also the father of Khan’s unborn child (the result of a single, mindless encounter at the very beginning of the trip). He collects bone samples from their captured specimens.

Dr. Elaine Penny, biologist: She collects epidermal (skin) growths from their specimens.

Stephen Greaves, specialty unknown by almost everyone: With his severe difficulties in communicating and interacting with others and his brilliant powers of observation and invention, 15-year-old Stephen is a gifted savant. "The general that Greaves  is probably on the autistic spectrum, but how much of his weirdness is down to his brain's basic wiring and how much of it is a trauma artifact?" He is famous for inventing the e-blocker gel that disguises human scent from the hungries, although most people give Khan credit for the invention. He doesn’t participate in the team’s collection missions because that’s his only chance to slip away to do his observations of the hungries. 

The Military Escort
Colonel Isaac Carlisle (aka the Fireman), military commander: He has a tortured past in which he completed a horrific military mission even after he argued fruitlessly against it, and his reputation has suffered for it—as has his mental and emotional health.

Lt. Daniel McQueen, sniper and second in command: McQueen reminded me of Shane Walsh in The Walking Dead—a beefy, rage-filled brute whose motto is “my way or the highway.” He constantly bumps up against Carlisle, and he despises all of the scientists.

Lance-Bombardier Kat Foss, sniper: She is a top-notch sniper and is the only one on the mission that McQueen truly trusts.

Private Brendan Lutes, engineer: He takes scrupulous care of Rosie’s mechanical features, but feels like an outsider because he was a civilian engineer who was unwillingly dragged into the military only because they needed his skills.

Private Paula Sixsmith, driver: She is an excellent driver and is able to take Rosie into the roughest terrain without working up a sweat or breaking a tread. She and Lutes work together to keep Rosie going.

Private Gary Phillips, quartermaster: He is kind of a newbie who wants to be as big and bad as McQueen. 

     Carey excels at putting the reader inside the minds of these fellow travelers, but he is at his best with Stephen, who is definitely the odd man out in this motley crew. Stephen wants nothing more than to solve this whole fungal plague problem, and he’s pretty sure that he can do it if he can just get out there and observe the hungries up close and personal. Those thoughts lead him to sneak away from Rosie whenever he can. He has invented a special suit that keeps the hungries confused about his exact whereabouts, so he can actually move slowly into their midst and observe them for hours at a time. Then, one day a different kind of creature bursts into a room filled with Stephen and his hungries. She is obviously intelligent, but she has the speed and reflexes of the hungries. Shockingly, she speaks a guttural language, although it is unintelligible to Stephen. As Stephen investigates further, he discovers that the girl is the leader of a large group of similar children who range in age from toddlers to teens. Unfortunately, Stephen can’t tell any of his team members about his new discovery because if he does they would either kill the girl and her friends and/or lock him up inside Rosie for the rest of the trip. Stephen's decision to keep his find a secret will have major ramifications for the future of the mission.

     Stephen is the titular boy on the bridge, a literal reference that is explained in the middle of Part II of the book. At that point, he is actually a boy on a real bridge, but he is alsometaphorically—the bridge between the human survivors and the new generation of hungries. Carey provides other bridge metaphors for Stephen. For example, "An eccentric genius, or just an ill-equipped explorer swaying on the rickety rope bridge between sanity and madness?" The soldiers definitely view him as a crazy boy who is a detriment to the expedition, while the scientists mostly ignore him, except for Kahn, who nurtures him like a son. Stephen, in turn, accepts Khan as his one and only friend in the world. Just as The Girl with All the Gifts is a coming-of-age story for Melanie, this novel is a coming-of-age experience for Stephen, who must deal with some harsh and heart-breaking realities before the book comes to its violent end. With his eidetic memory and his total lack of social skills, Stephen reminded me of a post-apocalyptic Sheldon Cooper.

     As Carey tells his story, we get to know most of the team members fairly well. The characters who play the most important roles are Stephen, Khan, Carlisle, and McQueen, so they get more print space than the others. Each crew member is compelling, but Stephen is the heart of the story, and we root for him all the way through. As the plot advances, suspense begins to build, beginning with the announcement of Khan’s pregnancy and then the gradual revealing of various secrets about the present behavior and past events for several of the team members.

Carey divides the book into four parts:

Part I: In Country, which takes them through the first few weeks, from the announcement of Khan’s pregnancy right up to the point that they lose radio contact with Beacon, “their home base and source of rationale and reference point.”

Part II: Gestation (the longest section), in which secrets unfold and characters make life-altering choices about their mission roles. In this section, Stephen learns much more about the mysterious group of children who look like hungries, but are very different because they can control their hunger, communicate verbally, and have the ability to reason and negotiate.

Part III: Birth, in which the suspense builds to a climax and then a resolution. Warning! Not everyone makes it out alive. On a literal level, the section title also refers to the birth of Khan’s child.

Epilogue: Twenty Years Later, in which we look in on the survivors as they meet up with a surprising group of visitors.

     Basically, the story follows the Beacon Muster as it wends its way north into the depths of the Scottish Highlands. The group stops every once in awhile to either pick up samples from the caches or to gather tissue from some of the hungries who are attracted to Rosie. On these missions, the soldiers surround the scientists and take down threatening hungries with silencer-equipped guns while the scientists huddle together as they go from one specimen to another, each gathering a particular type of tissue. For example, Knan is in charge of gathering brain tissue. As the group carries out its mundane tasks, Carey puts us in the minds of the characters, introducing us to their prejudices, fears, emotions, and secrets. Knowing the inner workings of the characters’ minds puts an edge on the suspense because we can predict how each character will react to the events that play out among the team members, the mysterious children who appear to be trailing Rosie, and the group that initiates the inevitable showdown at the end of Part III. Carey is masterful at characterization. We understand these people through and through, sympathizing with their plights (Khan and Stephen), gasping at their arrogance (Fournier and McQueen), and watching the others react to the events at hand.

     As dark intrigues play out among some of the Beacon Muster crew, Stephen and Khan take center stage in an emotional finale that will break your heart. Carey has created another powerful story set in the terrifying world that he meticulously created in The Girl with All the Gifts. If you are looking for a brand new take on zombies (although that word is never used here), you need to read both of these books. This novel is a terrifying, emotionally gripping page-turner that you won't want to miss.

     Click HERE to go to this novel’s page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art for print or the “Listen” icon for audio.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of The Boy on the Bridge 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.  

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