In the zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic America where Benny Imura lives, every teenager must find a job by the time they turn fifteen or get their rations cut in half. Benny doesn’t want to apprentice as a zombie hunter with his boring older brother Tom, but he has no choice. He expects a tedious job whacking zoms for cash, but what he gets is a vocation that will teach him what it means to be human.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan Maberry at Book Expo America last year when a mutual friend decided that I needed to meet him at an in-booth signing. As we approached the book, I couldn’t help but notice the long line of people patiently waiting to meet with him. The line was unusual in that it encapsulated every possible demographic of reader: the young teen male, the older female librarian, the middle-aged sci-fi/horror fan, the thirty-something writers … there was no generalizing his fan base, unlike some of the other writers present. I was reminded of that when I sat down to read Rot & Ruin, because I think I’ve finally found a zombie book that is truly something for everyone – and in the very best possible way.
At first, I wasn’t too enamoured of our protagonist Benny. He was a classic fifteen-year-old kid, full of angst and self-righteousness and chutzpah, and I laughed – a lot – at the descriptions of why the other jobs didn’t work out for him. He’s a mouthy, obnoxious teen – and I loved it. I could tell that the relationship between Benny and Tom had been strained for a long time, and as a result, when we finally learned about what Tom did, the emotional impact on both Benny and the reader was that much stronger. The story of the Lost Girl was also haunting; Maberry has a knack for writing characters who reveal bits of themselves at a time, as if allowing you to come to terms with the horror they deal with every day.
I also appreciated how Benny grew up over the course of the first book, maturing and becoming more than he thought he could be, especially when (minor spoiler here) he watched his brother go down in a mass of zombies and he had to deal with the aftermath. Overall, I loved the characters in Maberry’s story – they reminded me of an old west movie, with that same sense of untamed wilderness. That sense of the wild also pertains to the story – it was a roller coaster ride of action, and just when you thought you were done and had a breather, there was another twist to keep you breathless.
“The world is bigger and harder to understand than you think… You have to keep your mind as wide-open as your eyes, because almost nothing is what it seems.”
The portrayal of the zombies was surprisingly sympathetic; I was expected a blood and gore book about zombie killing, and instead found a much more sensitive portrayal of individuals who were truly lost. As my friend Rachel said, when discussing this book with me, “a great zombie book is never about the zombies”, and I have to agree. The zombies in this book were neither good nor bad – they just existed, and were driven by instinct, not intelligence. I found myself tearing up when Tom read the first letter in front of Benny, and again at the end when they made the journey they both had to make. The zombies were people who loved and were loved, and now were lost forever, and I really liked the idea of Tom providing closure to families who needed it.
There are a few instances in the book where there are some pointed allegories taking place – the treatment of the zombies is, at times, reminiscent of the treatment of African-Americans in the Deep South in the 50’s, or of the Jews in the Holocaust. While it can be a little heavy at times, it’s a neat little twist, and probably a great thinking point for some of the younger readers as it will allow them to question the concepts of rights and freedoms and what exactly constitutes fair treatment.
One minor quibble: I hope that Nix becomes a stronger character in books 2 and beyond. I think that she has been through so much, and has seen so much destruction in her life that she needs to become tougher and stronger, and so far that’s not been happening in my eyes. Having said that, I’m hooked, and I will be reading books two and beyond this summer.
“There are moments that define a person’s whole life. Moments in which everything they are and everything they may possibly become balance on a single decision. Life and death, hope and despair, victory and failure teeter precariously on the decision made at that moment. These are moments ungoverned by happenstance, untroubled by luck. These are the moments in which a person earns the right to live, or not.”
Rot and Ruin was purchased by me a long, long time ago … and now I’m glad to have read it! It is available for purchase from Indigo, Amazon and your friendly indie bookseller. ISBN: 9781442402324, 458 pages.