“They were half-pinned under an SUV that was burning brightly, sending black puffs of smoke into the air like an old West smoke signal, like it was humanity’s last chance to ask for help.”
At the beginning of this series, almost half of the world’s population suddenly turn into zombies and start killing the other half, so there’s lots of gore. In fact, this is likely the most gruesome book I’ve ever read. Right off the bat, we smell “the pungent odor of bowels that had been purged in fear and death” and see a zombie “kneeling over a young girl, yanking loops of entrails out of her stomach.” Despite all the gore, the author is initially squeamish when it comes to swear words, although the cussing does increase as the series goes on.
The gross-out moments don’t stop with the zombies, either. In a flashback, we also learn that changing diapers is gross: “He could have done without the time he learned the hard way that little boys could pee straight up and if you didn’t do some strategic pre-aiming a good deal of that pee was liable to go right into your mouth.” Yech.
This series is mainly written in the form of extremely short action-packed chapters which all end on a cliff-hanger (including the end of each book), spurring you on to read more. It reminded me of L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth in this way. So despite the hefty page count, it makes for a relatively quick read. That said, I would have liked it if the author had slowed things down a bit more often. The non-stop close calls do start to tire you out after a while. The characters keep narrowly escaping doom over and over (often via deus ex machina) only to wind up in trouble again and again. These characters certainly have an incredible amount of both good and bad luck.
Our main point of view character is Ken Strickland, a Boise high school teacher who knows martial arts. He’s alone versus the zombies at first, but he eventually meets up with other survivors. He first meets a tough-as-nails farmer named Dorcas, then he meets a tough-as-nails cowboy named Aaron. It seemed to me that Dorcas immediately switched from being the tough one to the scared one once Aaron showed up, though. As the series continues, more characters get introduced, including a baby and a small child who remain asleep for most of the time.
You could tell the author did his homework to give us realistic details regarding things like train car decoupling. There’s a great scene early on involving a chase through a subceiling which I thought was well done. There are also some great lines sprinkled throughout the book. One of my favorites is “Like being born in reverse, going from blood and light into the darkness again.”
There are also some funny turns of phrase such as “a woman who looked like she followed the Countess Bathory bathing regimen” or “Bunk beds with paper-thin mattresses that were covered by burlap bedding designed less for warmth than exfoliation.” In another scene, bees fall down as if dead, but they might just be stunned. Ken “didn’t plan to stick around and check for tiny pulses” to be sure.
The zombies gain more and more powers as we go on, until they become the most formidable zombies in fiction. Not only are they fast and smart, but they can’t be killed by head shots. They’re telepathic, they heal quickly, they can transform their bodies, they spit acid, and their various body parts continue moving after being cut off (hey, zombies are unrealistic in the first place, why not go full-on nightmare?). They’re basically invincible.
The zombies can also mentally attack anyone who uses a cell phone (but not a walkie-talkie). Since the zombies are such a huge threat, it means there’s little time for people to turn on each other like they usually do in post-apocalyptic fiction. When the people in the group do have tension, it’s not presented as good versus evil, but rather good versus good, which is always a more interesting conflict.
I can’t stress enough how fast-paced this series is. By the time we get well into book 3, only about six or seven hours have passed since the beginning of book 1. The characters have basically been running a zombie marathon with little time to rest or refuel between chase scenes. It makes you wonder how they haven’t simply collapsed from sheer exhaustion.
After all the non-stop action in the first five books, the characters finally get a chance to breath in book 6 and the reader gets a chance to learn more about them which was a nice long-overdo change of pace. Book 6 also introduces my favorite character in the series, Mo the mellow Maori Mormon millionaire.
Book 6 and much of book 7 take place in Oregon, although the author seems to forget this at times, telling us interesting facts about Idaho as if that’s where we still are. I’ve got to say again, the plot does feel repetitive. The characters almost get caught by zombies, they escape, repeat. The series would have been better if most of this repetition was removed. There are also occasional head-scratching lines like this one: “Ken wasn’t one of those pacifists who believed it was better to put defenseless children in front of a bullet-wielding maniac than it was to put guns in the hands of cops.”
Overall, this is a fine action-packed zombie series for readers who don’t mind gross-out moments.