It started with reading Sci-Fi Magazine’s quote on the book cover “The zombie novel Robert A. Heinlein might have written” – a suggestion I could not avoid checking out. It ended with me reading everything – and I repeat, everything – belonging to what you can call the Newsflesh Universe, a world built around the blog After the End Times, the Mason’s brothers and the horrifying zombie-producing Kellis-Amberlee virus – a combination of two miraculous cures, one for cancer and one for the common cold turned horribly bad – that doomed mankind in a hot summer of July 2014.
After much hesitation, I’ve decided to not review the three books – and the three novellas (to date) – separately. For essentially two reasons: even though they are perfectly enjoyable as stand-alone books, they are actually a single story narrated in three major instalments and some other snippets before (Countdown) and after. And you can’t review one without huge spoilers about all the others. The second, strictly connected reason, is that I have gobbled up all of them in one go. And this is what you are probably going to do as well.
Hail to Zombie Queen, then: if there is a crown for zombie stories, she’s the rightful owner.
– The title of this review is not accidental either, and not just for the quality of this amazingly talented Californian writer who “lives in a crumbling farmhouse with an assortment of cats, horror movies, comics, and books about horrible diseases.” (http://www.orbitbooks.net/author/mira-grant). Hail to the King is the title of Shaun Philip Mason’s blog – and zombie aficionados won’t miss the reference to Shaun of the Dead, the great 2004 British comedy and a must-see on anybody’s list. You also won’t miss the double meaning of the trilogy titles – Feed as feeding but also as news feed: and so on. Rather appropriate, if you think the protagonists are journalists and bloggers in a zombie-populated universe.
Feed, the first book of the trilogy, starts with the two protagonists, the Mason’s brothers, facing a famished pack of zombies, in an abandoned Santa Cruz some decades after the fatal summer 2014 – aka the Rising. Zombies had become somehow natural and society has learnt how to cope with them – with containment, standardised procedures and ubiquitous blood tests. George and Shaun, together with Buffy, the IT wizard and a blogger herself, go and cover the Presidential campaign, which rapidly become a deadly race to discover an ugly truth.
Deadline and Blackout, the following two, look very much like two parts of the same book since there’s no break in continuity between them. Blackout starts exactly where Deadline finishes, with a new, scaring, man-made zombie outbreak driven by a mosquito invasion.
In Seanan’s own words, Feed is a political thriller with zombies, Deadline is a medical thriller with zombies, and Blackout is a conspiracy thriller with zombies (http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/nonfiction/interview-seanan-mcguiremira-grant). Moreover, Feed clearly shows why it will be wrong and misleading to reduce the Newflesh trilogy to a simple zombie story. It is far more than that – and if you have to select only one category you should rather put it down as a political techno-thriller. Zombies are no protagonists. They rather are part of the background – natural dangers like tsunamis or deadly diseases. Something that can kill you, but without the conscious desire to harm you: not the same can be said about the other, evil forces at work in this universe – corrupt politicians and rogue agencies worth a Ludlum’s conspiracy book.
Feed is by unanimous acclaim the best of the three, and not just for the novelty, but also for the overall level of consistency. I am not the only one with this opinion – others have spoken of the series as one defined by “diminishing returns”, no matter if Hugo’s Best Novel nominations kept rolling on (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/10/book-review-parasite-mira-grant.) Also enthusing is the debate, somehow running in the background of the novel, about the role of journalism. Does Georgia Mason really “embodies the very worst elements of contemporary journalism”? (http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2011/02/feed_by_mira_gr.shtml) Maybe, or maybe not, but the very discussion is nonetheless interesting and worth a mention as one of the high points of the novel, no matter if not consistent with the zombies plot, or if it can sound out of topic or annoying for readers in only for the gore and the splatter.
For the same reasons, or lack of, I tend to consider Blackout the less successful of the trilogy, albeit enjoyable all the same (I have read it in three nights: I could not possibly put it down). The real problem is the scientific rationale behind the plot. The sheer mechanics of cloning is at times plausible, but some sections are too simplistic and definitively not credible in a world at the technological level she describes. We are not in Altered Carbon’s universe here. My BS detector rang clear and loud a few times.
Nonetheless the Mira-verse has interested me so much that I took the time to browse a dozen of reviews – out of curiosity, but also to check whether what I found as (very few) shortcomings were just my quirks or something widely shared. It has been said, for instance, (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/07/when-will-you-rise-deadline-and-blackout-by-mira-grant) that Mira Grant doesn’t trust her readers for the long run, and repeat too many times characters’ traits – George’s preference for a cold version of caffeine in forms of Coke, just to mention one. Impossible to deny it, and it could be disturbing should you be given time to focus on it. Point is, you are not. Action is so fast-paced and surprises so frequent that you have barely the time to remember breathing. This is also valid for another common remark, regarding the characters’ voice – they tend to speak in the same way, with curt irony, windy descriptions and snappy remarks. “Thus, the Masons and everyone close to them appear to the reader in almost stereotypical terms, in part facilitated by the taxonomy of blogging, which assigns different temperaments to different roles” (http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2011/11/deadline_by_mir.shtml). I won’t dare to deny it, but loving this style I’m somehow tolerant, like I am toward a final and rather easy criticism regarding her bad guys – obvious and too black-and-white in Feed and more nuanced but less believable (a heel-turn in the best TV tradition) in Deadline. (http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/12/review_feed_by_mira_grant; http://www.jimchines.com/2011/05/mira-grants-feed )
Other points raised in the reviews find me less in agreement. Is the book too long? Tell GRR Martin or Peter Hamilton about it. Does it start slowly? Neither. “Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot — in this case, my brother, Shaun — deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick and see what happens.” And then you find yourself right in the middle of the action. Is the relation between the two siblings believable? Yes, despite what some people say (even though criticism is stronger in the sequels. Feed is generally well considered: http://www.geeksofdoom.com/2011/06/02/book-review-feed-by-mira-grant). Is too technical? As far as it’s believable, no, I don’t think so. It is well-researched, especially the description of the virus’ accidental creation (you can read it all in the novella Countdown. For some reviewers’ comments on technical points, see: http://www.thecultden.com/2013/12/feed-by-mira-grant-review-by-liam-salt.html). I have only flinched when it loses me at the end of Deadline, and in Blackout I simply can’t buy it, for what I said before. But again, that’s so much better than the other zombies books (http://www.mindful-musings.com/2013/01/review-of-feed-newsflesh-1-by-mira-grant.html). She can be forgiven for it.
Talking about the writer herself, there is a good news and a bad news. The bad news is that her books have not been translated in many languages yet: my Italian friends risk waiting for a while. But she starts to be known, and appreciated, in France (http://www.bragelonne.fr/livres/View/feed) .
The good news is that Seanan has just been nominated for another Hugo Award, whose winners will be announced at Loncon 3, the Worldcon of Sci-Fi. And she will be there too (http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com).
So, is that reference to Heinlein right? No, it is not. And not because he has never written about zombies (All you zombies is about all but zombies) – Heinlein is simply something very different, in terms of vision, words, spirit. But this doesn’t detract anything from Seanan. She is one of the most powerful SFF new voices, and she deserves all your attention. She has got mine for sure.