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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 page and click on either the cover art or the audio icon. 

     In January 2017, a movie based on the novel opened in the U.S., starring Glenn Close as Dr. Caroline Caldwell and Gemma Arterton as Helen Justineau, and introducing Sennia Nanua as Melanie. Click HERE to view the official trailer. Click HERE to go to the movie's page.

     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.  

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

     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 hold of him when 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 realize 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 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 page where you can click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

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