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The Return Man by V. M. Zito

The Return Man (2012)

by V. M. Zito

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Zombie fiction is one of the most, if not the most, popular subgenre in Western popular culture. In the last ten years, whether in film, television, video game or book form, zombies have multiplied, as they are inclined to, like a plague. Inevitably, this means that certain tropes are repeated or rehashed, become clichés, and the genre becomes stale. It is therefore a great surprise that V. M. Zito's The Return Man manages to tell a story that feels fresh. Zito strikes gold with his new concept: that of a 'zombie hitman', a survivor roaming the 'Evacuated States' who kills - or 'returns' - specific zombies on behalf of their grieving families back in the 'Safe States' - that is, all the land east of the Mississippi. Zombies retain some memories of their previous lives in the primitive parts of their brains, so Marco knows how to track them - 'emotional geography', he calls it. He is shanghaied by a shady political figure to complete a task considered crucial to national security which requires him to travel to infested California, where he must confront his own demons as well as hordes of zombies.

Zito balances these two angles well - both the national security/political intrigue and the personal character-driven plotlines are excellent and do not get in the way of each other. The first angle is anchored by a believable origin story of how the outbreak manifested, as well as the believable rise of the right-wing New Republican party in the Safe States: After the Resurrection, their ideals had spread like a fresh infection, exploiting the weak tissues of wounded America." (pg. 38). The second, personal angle is given weight by the strong characterisation of protagonist Henry Marco. The story is told from his perspective, and we empathise with his isolation and his doubts. When this plotline concludes at the end of the book, it is a sucker punch, as we have grown to care about what happens to Marco. Zito hints in an interview included at the end of the book that there might be a second Henry Marco book; whilst this would be interesting, I feel it would be a mistake. Marco's character arc is wrapped up at the end of this novel, and with this resolved I fail to see how the character's emotional weight will fascinate the reader a second time to the extent it did here. What would be Marco's motivations for continuing?

The quality of writing is also superb - Marco's love for his lost wife aches from the pages, as does his crushing isolation from her and from society. Yet when the action kicks in, it is very exciting and frenetic - if the personal moments ache, then in these moments the action leaps off the page. Most of all, I was impressed by the very real danger that the zombies pose. In a lot of zombie fiction, the zombies are incidental to the story, or pose little actual threat - merely inconveniences or cannon fodder for the main characters. Yet in The Return Man, the zombies are imbued with great menace - Marco frets over whether to use a gun to take down his 'target', as a gunshot would alert masses of nearby zombies. His mind races as he looks for what might go wrong, where his possible escape routes are. The weighing up of risk against reward is one of the book's strongest features - Henry Marco is, above all, about surviving. In our highly-developed society, it is easy to forget how difficult this can be in a more primitive and oppressive environment. When the characters are in situations where they are swarmed or might be swarmed by zombies, an element of panic and tension is palpable. "These corpses have a way of... outwitting you. Maybe because we overthink, and they just go on instinct," Marco warns his companion, Wu, on page 146. The reader is also treated to some rich detail; Wu, for example, does not just have green eyes, but "Green, the colour of legend. It was the hereditary mark of Crassus's lost Roman legion, soldiers who'd disappeared in Gansu two thousand years ago; they were rumoured to have wandered China as mercenaries, fathering exotic new bloodlines as they went. Surely young Wu had soldier-blood in his heart, pounding like cannon-fire..." (pg. 209).

In essence, the strength of The Return Man is its measured approach; the balance Zito brings is similar to that of an experienced writer, not a first-time author. The narrative knows when to slow down and when to speed up, the characterisation knows when to lean closer and when to stand off, and the plot knows when to reveal and when to conceal. It is a finely-attuned book and a fantastic example of what this genre has to offer. I have read, and will continue to read, much zombie fiction, but The Return Man stands as one of the best." ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
It is a slightly different take on zombies... instead of it being about someone running from a zombie breakout, it's an action novel about guy on a mission in the middle of a zombie breakout. The main characters are not trying to deal with or cure zombies, and they aren't even trying to "find a safe place from them" - they just need to survive them to complete another mission.

There were a couple points where I wondered if the motivation behind the main character remaining in zombieland was believable, but I think it was. It made sense that he would have an outstanding "mission" that kept him from going to a safe zone. It was perfectly reasonable to accept that he was a damaged man completing some self-imposed punishment.

Actually, while there is plenty of zombie action (which is a bit on the gory side), it really comes across as an action novel, it just happens to involve zombies in addition to human enemies. There were some moments where, perhaps, the introspection went a little too deep, and there was a little "break through" of the author's political views... but these were both minor and infrequent.

All in all, it was a 4 star, almost 4.5 star when you compare it to others in its genre. As an action novel, it would be 3.5 stars, which is pretty good considering it's a zombie novel. ( )
  crazybatcow | Apr 24, 2015 |
The Return Man
V. M. Zito
Mass Market Paperback
Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: April 1, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0316218283
448 pages

More zombie goodness…

The Return Man by Z. M. Vito introduces two very unique and different premises to the “Zombie Problem.” As the name implies, not only does Henry Marcos, “The Return Man” return to zombie infected/infested areas to finish what the virus started but V. M. Zito gives a logical explanation why zombies seem to congregate in certain places. For my part, both of these ideas are unique additions to the genre and is, in part, the reason for my four star rating. Another reason is that it’s a damn fine story!

For a fee The Return Man will trek deep into an affected, off-limits zone and put an end to your zombified relative. For some family members this mercy killing is a final step in their healing process. For others, the “final ending” of their loved one might just allow them the closure they’ve needed to form a new beginning. Henry Marcos understands that the slow, meandering walk of the zombies has purpose and that a deep engrained memory, a spark of thought, compels them to seek out specific and meaningful places. Learn those important, sentimental places, The Return Man posits, and you can find almost anyone. So, why can’t Henry find his estranged wife? She’s out there somewhere and that’s what keeps Henry Marcos motivated and living at the edge of the zombie zone.

I like that V. M. Zito introduces not one, but two, very different and creative notions concerning zombies into his debut novel and, in the process, side-stepped a number of redundant, overused tropes. (It bodes well for his survival in the industry.) In a day when most zombie, werewolf, and vampire stories follow long-used memes Zito worked outside the normal story lines to create a new sub-genre; that of Zombie Hunter. The Return Man held my interest throughout, and more importantly, kept me entertained from cover to cover. I love post-apocalyptic fiction and zombies. It’s even better when a new author adds unique ideas to a favorite mix and brings them successfully together. That’s usually when we find something special. The Return Man “is” that something special!

File with: Post apocalyptic literature, zombies, survival, adventure, and zombies. I know I said zombies twice. I like zombies.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin ( )
  TheAlternativeOne | Apr 5, 2013 |
There are some books I read that strike me so strongly as a story that would translate well into a movie. The Return Man is one of those movies. I read a lot in this genre. I love survivalist, end of society and end of world books. When I saw this title I grabbed it because it fits everything I love about an action novel. And it did not disappoint. The Return Man had me not wanting to put it down and had me thinking about the world created between its pages long after I finished.

The Return Man begins several years after the western part of the United States has fallen and succumbed to a zombie plague. The government and society has retreated to east of the Mississippi; everything west of the Mississippi has been evacuated and abandoned. The zombie plague is focused only in the USA, other countries have not (yet) experienced it. (I wasn’t clear if Mexico or Canada had been effected and if not ….. why or what they were doing.) The main character of the story lives in Arizona in the house he lived in with his wife before the fall. He has fortified it and is able to jump off satellite connections and communicate with a relative living in the “safe states”. The Return Man is an interesting and different take on the zombie plague compared to what I have read before. Zombies are referred to as “corpses” and they are not completely mindless. The corpses are like most zombies -- not complex and not thinking roving beings but they retain some reflexive memory of places and actions. This is explained in the book in a scientific way - - the stronger the emotional connection to a place or action, the more embedded it is in the brain and only that is retained. So a corpse will return to locations that it had a strong emotional connection to. Why is this important? Well the hero of the story is an assassin of sorts. Through his satellite internet connection to the retreated US populace in the “safe states”, the hero has become a hunter of corpses that are the former loved ones of paying clients in the safe states. He uses information about his target to determine where the corpse would be emotionally pulled to and he goes after the zombie to eliminate it. Then the relatives can go on with their lives knowing that their loved ones are no longer out in the world hungry, desparate and undead. The main character travels throughout the western part of the former USA on his hunts.

So there are fights scenes and chase scenes – oh and the gore scenes. Funny enough, this is not what I like about survivalist and apocalypse themed books. So I skimmed these parts, however they are well written and with tight realistic action and humor. What’s that you ask? How can I like zombie books and not love the car and train chase scenes, fight and gore scenes? I like the collapse of society novels to read about what caused the collapse, how it happened, how people survived it and how people attempt to move-on past the collapse. The Return Man has that aspect, but it also centers more on a quest that needs to take place after the partial collapse of society and the fights and battles the leads must engage in to complete their quest. There are painful memories, witty jokes bantered about and fighting.

Some other unique things about this book, there are references to both domestic and international politics. There is a themes of foreign espionage (the USA is no longer the strongest country on the planet), domestic terrorists, and the very conservative and fascist government that has arisen and is in control in the “safe states”. At the same time, the main character is plagued by his own emotional loss. The reader learns about these through flashback scenes. These touches to the post-zombie world make The Return Man different and interesting. It reads like an action packed thriller but instead of chasing down international secrets about warheads – an unlikely pair is chasing down a potential cure to the zombie plague fighting off zombies, domestic terrorists and international forces.

This book was a lot of fun and I really hope there is a sequel! I believe fans of thrillers, zombie books and post-apocalyptic books will really enjoy the Return Man. ( )
  ReginaR | Apr 6, 2012 |
You may also read my review here: http://www.mybookishways.com/2012/04/the-return-man-by-vm-zito.html

Henry Marco, former neurologist, is now a gun for hire in the wastelands of what used to be the western US (the Evacuated States). His business partner and former brother in law lives in the east, in the area deemed safe by the government, the New Republicans. Days are spent tracking lost relatives and giving them the peace that their family members desire, with the memory of his wife haunting his every step. Haunted, yes, that’s the best way to describe Henry Marco. Hardened by years of battling the undead, he begins to questions just what it is that keeps him going. Is it his “job?” Does killing the undead relatives of grieving survivors bring him peace and closure also, or does it just fuel the pattern that he’s been forging for years, alone and devastated by loss? Well, Marco’s lone wolf existence is about to be shaken up. Homeland Security has taken his brother in law hostage, using him as leverage in order to hire Marco to hunt the ultimate target: Roger Ballard, the scientist that may just have the cure for the Resurrection disease. The US government isn’t the only one after Ballard, though, and it will take every bit of cunning that Marco possesses to take on this job, out among the wreckage of a country in collapse, overrun by the hordes of living dead.

It’s probably pretty obvious to you by now, dear reader, that I like zombies. It’s a very popular genre right now, and when it comes to zombies, I’m not a gourmand, I’m a gourmet, and I’m always on the lookout for the next above-the-cut zom novel. Luckily, The Return Man more than fits the bill. When I mentioned that more than just the US is interested in a possible cure or vaccine for the Resurrection disease, take that to heart, because Marco will have to deal with some pretty nasty customers (other than zombies), on his journey to Sarsgard Medical Prison, where Ballard was last known to be. He picks up an unlikely ally (or is he) in the form of Ken Wu, Chinese assassin and spy, and a group of psychotic militia men are after them as well. Trust me, the Horsemen will give you a case of the shudders. I really enjoyed the author’s idea that zombies might have a trace of their old selves intact. Not much, but enough to seek out places that are familiar or give them comfort. While this isn’t necessarily a comforting thought, considering the state of these things that were once human, it provides a neat twist on the usual zombie fare.

I had absolutely no trouble getting into, and staying immersed in, The Return Man. There is a ton of carnage in this, seriously, the sheer number of zombies that Marco and Wu have to wade through is staggering, and when it comes to zombie killin’, the author doesn’t leave much to the imagination. That’s ok, though! I mean, you’ll cringe, at least, I did and consider myself somewhat jaded, but the gore really is necessary to paint a terrifying picture of what our hero has to endure, and has had to steel himself to in order to survive in the Evacuated States. The Return Man has quite a bit more depth to it than your average zombie apocalypse novel because Marco himself has a lot of depth, and we also get to know Wu quite a bit during the telling of the story. You’ll think you have Wu’s number at the beginning, but you won’t, and his story just added another layer to the unfolding of The Return Man. I enjoyed every terrifying bit of this book, and if you love zombies, good writing, and great storytelling, I think you will too! ( )
  MyBookishWays | Apr 2, 2012 |
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The outbreak tore the US in two. The east remains a safe haven. The west has become a ravaged wilderness, known by survivors as the Evacuated States. It is here that Henry Marco makes his living. Hired by grieving relatives, he tracks down the dead and delivers peace. Now Homeland Security wants Marco for a mission unlike any other. He must return to California, where the apocalypse began. Where a secret is hidden. And where his own tragic past waits to punish him again. But in the wastelands of America, you never know who - or what - is watching you.… (more)

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