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Rot and Ruin
by Jonathan Maberry
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'Rot & Ruin' was a wonderful surprise, deeply satisfying and completely unexpected.
I picked up 'Rot & Ruin' because it was a perfect fit for the Deadlands Halloween Bingo square and because I'd enjoyed listening to Jonathan Maberry's Audible Original novella The Werewolf’s 15 Minutes. If I hadn't been playing Halloween Bingo, I might have passed this over.
I mean, how engaging could a Young Adult novel about the zombie apocalypse be? Been there. Done that.
Except, it turned out I'd never done THIS or anything like it.
'Rot & Ruin' isn't the story of the zombie apocalypse. It's the story of the people who survived it and especially those, now in their teens, who grew up after it and who don't remember the world that everyone else mourns the loss of.
Benny, the teenage boy who is the focus of the story, has only the vaguest memories of 'First Night', the term everyone uses to refer to the first days after the dead everywhere spontaneously began to rise. His older brother, Tom, remembers life before First Night and is old enough to have had to take tough decisions during and after First Night. Benny struggles to understand his brother's behaviour and attitude, partly because Benny is so young and inexperienced, partly because Tom never talks about First Night and partly because Tom seems to be the odd one out amongst the Zombie Bounty Hunters that Benny admires.
One of the things I enjoyed about 'Rot & Ruin' was how it dealt with this experience-gulf between the generations. Without ever feeling overtly didactic, it got me to think through how an experience like First Night would affect the survivors. How, once the adrenalin had subsided, the immediate danger had passed and life had to continue, it would shape their decisions for the future. How they would yearn for order and structure and safety. How they'd want to create a new normal. How they'd mythologise the big picture of the past as they mourn for what they've lost but how they would remain silent about the things they did to survive in the days and months after the world changed. How they would try to convince themselves that they are safe by pretending that they are no longer afraid and how that pretence would lead to all of their decisions being driven by fear rather than hope.
For the survivors, the wire around their small settlement in the midst of the zombie-infested Rot & Ruin, the world that has been left to decay since First Night, is a sanctuary. As long as they look inwards, they see safety. For some of the younger people, the wire that they have grown up behind is a cage. They look outwards and see the possibility of freedom.
This seemed very real to me. It resonates with what you see with people fleeing war zones and with soldiers returning from war, all sealing their traumas in walls of silence and active forgetfulness.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about 'Rot & Ruin' was how it made me think about zombies. We all know zombies: rotting, walking, always hungry, predatory but stupid, undead. My Going-in Plan for any zombie apocalypse would be:
Figure out how not to get killed by zombies.
Figure out how to kill zombies.
Keep killing zombies until there are none left where I live.
That's the kind of plan all the video games and TV series have convinced me is the only rational response to the zombie apocalypse, other than hiding in a cave and hoping to survive and that never ends well.
Jonathan Maberry made me question my plan. He reminded me that all those zombies out there were once people. He also showed what happens to the humanity of Bounty Hunters who spend their lives in the lawless Rot & Ruin making their living by bringing back the dismembered corpses of zombies. Eventually, he convinced me that men could be more monstrous than zombies and that, bizarre as it may seem, one measure of a person's humanity is the compassion they show for those who were once people and are now zombies.
Ok. So those were the things that made me go, 'Wow, what a powerful idea!' or 'That's how you tell truth through fiction.' but that's not what kept me up late at night to finish this novel and it's not what has me keen to read the rest of the series. It was Jonathan Maberry's storytelling that swept me up and kept me completely engaged.
The book is packed with moments of great excitement as Benny faces up to a series of seemingly overwhelming threats. The many, many action scenes are compelling and vivid. They're filled with violence that feels real but is never glorified. Jonathan Maberry keeps the story moving at a tension-sustaining pace while deftly side-stepping clichés and making sure that choices have context and that their consequences are explored. All of which makes Benny and his experience feel real rather than making him into a character in a video game or a Boy's Own adventure.
I wanted to like this story. I wanted to like Benny, Nix, and Benny's brother, Tom Imura. I wanted to enjoy this story, really. Did I? In the end, questionable.
It's fifteen years since the end of civilization as we know it, when the disease/virus struck and dead arose to become what are colloquially called "Zoms" or zombies. Benny was still a babe in arms on First Night when life went to hell and people lost their moorings in the suddenly changed world. His memories of that night, his mother being dragged from a window by his undead father, and himself being carried away by his brother have colored his views of his brother and their current lives in Mountainside. He thinks Tom is a joke, is fascinated and entertained by the stories told by the bounty hunter, Charley "Pink-eye" Matthias and would rather avoid working if he could.
Benny's about to have his world turned on its head when he has to go find a job shortly after his 15th birthday. He ends up discovering there is more to the Rot and Ruin than he ever thought. It's the world outside the fence where there are no laws, lots of zoms, bounty hunters, and the ruins of old world. The bounty hunters are not the great heroes Benny has always admired, nor is Tom the great coward Benny thought him. The lessons he learns not only from his brother, but from the others in his life will not only open his eyes to the real world, but forever change how he views the zombies and the living.
Well that's the idea anyway and I had to constantly remind myself that Benny is a relatively sheltered 15 year old. I'm not sure Benny really progressed as much as he was meant to in this story, though he's definitely not where he started. The journey just did not go quite far enough. Maybe if we saw him a year later ...
In the end, I found the writing tedious and surprisingly repetitive. I got to the halfway point and seriously thought about stopping. I do think the narrator might have contributed to the how slow this story went, since his voice, though pleasantly deep, is rather flat in its delivery and he makes Benny sound younger than his 15 years. (Also, I just didn't buy into the nascent relationship between Benny and his potential girlfriend, Nix. But, that's just me.)
It is hard to make a book about zombies feel fresh. Not only because the idea has been done many times over, but also because it can be quite a depressing story if it is not handled correctly. Rot and Ruin shows that occasionally it is possible. Set after the panic and chaos of the zombie apocalypse, it takes place in one of the few human camps remaining. The book describes how people would live, despite the ever-present living dead. There are interesting characters and interesting ideas, like people having to wear carpets on them to stop zombies teeth from infecting them. This is a good start to an interesting series that shows the good and bad of humanity, even after the end of the world.
This is no ordinary zombie novel. Maberry has given it a soul in the form of two brothers who captured my heart from the first page and refused to let go.
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Wikipedia in English (1)
In a post-apocalyptic world where fences and border patrols guard the few people left from the zombies that have overtaken civilization, fifteen-year-old Benny Imura is finally convinced that he must follow in his older brother's footsteps and become a bounty hunter.
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Jonathan Maberry chatted with LibraryThing members from Mar 22, 2010 to Apr 4, 2010. Read the chat.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.6Literature English (North America) American fiction 21st Century
An edition of this book was published by Recorded Books.
I like much of what Maberry imagined for his zombie apocalypse-there are certainly ideas I haven't seen before. Some are pretty neat, like the carpet coats and the erosion portraits. Others seemed a bit silly, like the cult-like fear of electricity among some of the townspeople.
The author had an interesting approach to zombies-much more empathy than expected, although at times I felt like I was being hammered with that theme.
The drawn-out expository conversations between Benny and his brother Tom worked to some extent because Tom is becoming a mentor to Benny, but it sometimes made the dialogue awkward. By the end, I was enjoying their relationship and glad
It wasn't perfect, and I don't feel the overwhelming desire to gush about it, but I enjoyed it well enough, developed an attachment to the characters and will probably pick up the next one before too long. ( )