Editor’s Note: Please join us in welcoming guest blogger, Allie McCarn, to WWEnd. Allie reviews science fiction and fantasy books on her blog Tethyan Books which we featured in a previous post: Five SF/F Book Blogs Worth Reading. She has already contributed many great book reviews to WWEnd and has generously volunteered to write some periodic reviews for our blog. Be sure to check out her site and let her know you found her here. Thanks, Allie, and welcome aboard!
“In 2014, two experimental viruses—a genetically engineered flu strain designed by Dr. Alexander Kellis, intended to act as a cure for the common cold, and a cancer-killing strain of Marburg, known as "Marburg Amberlee"—escaped the lab and combined to form a single airborne pathogen that swept around the world in a matter of days. It cured cancer. It stopped a thousand cold and flu viruses in their tracks.
It raised the dead.
Millions died in the chaos that followed. The summer of 2014 was dubbed "The Rising," and only the lessons learned from a thousand zombie movies allowed mankind to survive. Even then, the world was changed forever. The mainstream media fell, Internet news acquired an undeniable new legitimacy, and the CDC rose to a new level of power.
Set twenty years after the Rising, the Newsflesh trilogy follows a team of bloggers, led by Georgia and Shaun Mason, as they search for the brutal truths behind the infection. Danger, deceit, and betrayal lurk around every corner, as does the hardest question of them all:
When will you rise?
When Senator Peter Ryman of Wisconsin decides to take a team of bloggers along on his run for the White House, Georgia and Shaun Mason are quick to submit their application. They, along with their friend Georgette "Buffy" M. are selected, and view this as the chance to launch their careers to a whole new level…that is, if they can survive the campaign trail.”
I chose to read Feed due to its recent Hugo nomination. I admit that I set out to read it with a bit of a positive bias. I’ve never read anything by Seanan McGuire (Mira Grant’s real name) before, but I’m a pretty big fan of zombie apocalypse stories. I’ve watched zombie apocalypse movies, read other zombie novels, such as World War Z, and comics, and I often play zombie survival video games. All of this may have slightly skewed my opinion of Feed, but I’m pretty sure that I would have loved it regardless.
Rather than recounting the zombie apocalypse, Feed takes place as the first generation – with no memories of a pre-Rising world – comes into adulthood. At this point, zombies are a constant, but manageable, threat. While there’s certainly some zombie action scattered throughout the book, it’s the human characters that take center stage. Georgia (George), Shaun and Buffy are 20-something bloggers who are the first non-traditional news media to be included in the coverage of a presidential campaign. It’s a great opportunity for them, until things take a turn for the dangerous and they begin to uncover potentially deadly secrets. While the basics of the mystery might be a little bit predictable, I did not feel like that significantly detracted from the draw or emotional effectiveness of the story. The fascinating characters, complex world-building, and several unforeseen plot twists along the way more than made up for any predictability in the basic structure.
George, Shaun and Buffy intrigued me from the beginning, and I only grew to like them more as the book progressed. As professional bloggers, they keep themselves under near-constant surveillance, and they each have a carefully cultivated public personality. George, the viewpoint character, is considered a “Newsie” blogger, who reports the news with as little bias as possible. Her persona is sarcastic, hard-nosed, and aggressive. Thanks to her ‘retinal-KA’ (a zombie-related eye infection), she always wears sunglasses to protect her permanently dilated eyes from light. I empathized with her immediately over her eye problems. As a nearsighted person, I’ve regularly had my eyes dilated, and I can attest to how annoying it is. Her adopted brother Shaun, an “Irwin”, uses his blog to provide thrills to people hiding safe in their homes. He tries to cultivate a carefree, daredevil attitude, and constantly gets himself into exciting and dangerous situations. Buffy is a “Fictional”, who has a fondness for writing sappy poetry. She presents herself as friendly, eccentric, and kind of flaky, but she’s also a highly skilled tech who takes care of all the electronics. We learn more about them, and their styles of blogging, in interesting excerpts from their blog files that are inserted between the chapters.
While these public personae are the first impressions we get of George, Shaun, and Buffy, there’s much more to them than the ‘characters’ they play. George is an uncompromising reporter, but she’s also a young woman from a troubled home life, who worries about the safety of her thrill-seeking brother. Shaun might act like an “Irwin”, but he’s also a stickler for safety measures in field situations, and he has an unexpected temper beneath his carefree veneer. Buffy might seem flighty, but she has depth to her that no one would expect. Also, none of them have ever really lost anything significant as a result of the zombie uprising. In this careful, post-Rising world, even though they regularly encounter zombies, they still have the typical youthful sense that disasters are something that happen to other people. I greatly enjoyed slowly growing to know and care about these characters over the course of Senator Ryman’s campaign trail. Aside from the three of them, there was a multitude of minor characters, such as Senator Ryman, his wife, the latecomer blogger Rick, and other bloggers. While they are not explored in nearly as much detail, they do enrich the world that George, Shaun, and Buffy inhabit.
It’s not only the many characters that make the world they inhabit so satisfyingly intricate. Grant goes into great detail describing the post-Rising society, the post-Rising blogosphere, the zombie virus, and how people have changed as a result of it all. In particular, the explanation of the zombie virus is one of the most thorough and interesting I’ve ever seen. To greatly simplify Grant’s explanation, the Kellis-Amberlee (zombie) virus has actually spread in a dormant state through the entire world. Upon death or contact with an active virus (e.g., a zombie bite), the virus takes over the living creature, turning it into a zombie. Not only humans are susceptible to the virus, but also animals with sufficient body mass (anything of a size equal to or greater than that of a large dog).
Since everyone reanimates after death, it seems like the zombie virus can never be extinguished. Most people are afraid of crowds, afraid of their neighbors, and even afraid of pets. As a result of this fear, their society is highly, almost obsessively, regulated. Most people live in high security communities, clean blood tests are constantly required when going anywhere, and the idea of burying the dead instead of burning the infectious corpse is regarded with horror. The threat of zombies is actually pretty blatantly conflated with terrorism, making this a pretty heavy-handed reference to living in a modern-day culture of fear. I don’t think that Grant ever stepped over the line into sermonizing, though, and she didn’t attempt to force any solutions. Their fear is certainly shown as reasonable, and the open question is how much they should let it govern their lives.
My Rating: 5/5
Feed ranks among the best of the books I’ve read this year. I can literally say that it made me laugh and cry, and there was never a point where I was less than intensely interested in the story. I could tell that a lot of thought went into the construction of the zombie virus and the post-zombie-apocalypse society, and I loved reading the descriptions of both. I found the public personae and private personalities of George, Shaun, and Buffy intriguing, and I quickly found myself deeply emotionally invested in their dangerous adventure. I think Feed definitely deserves its Hugo recognition, and I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Deadline, which has just come out!