The Girl With All the Gifts by MR Carey (Orbit, June 10th, 2014)-Melanie is very much like every other 10 year old girl; she loves stories, especially myths and fairy tales, she loves going to school, and she especially loves Miss Justineau. However, this is where the similarities end. Melanie lives in a lockdown facility, 20 years after a plague ravaged the world, and every day after class, she is returned to her cell until the next day where she’ll be strapped to a chair and wheeled to class. For Melanie, though, it’s not too bad. She has her very active imagination to keep her company, and of course the anticipation of seeing Miss Justineau. So what if a few of her classmates have visited Dr. Caldwell and never come back. Surely they’ve gone to a better place, right? One day, Dr. Caldwell, who has been working to find a cure at any cost, calls for Melanie, and as Melanie is being strapped down to a table, the dangers that have lurked outside the gates for years breach their supposedly secure sanctuary, and a small group of survivors, including Melanie, set out over a ravaged England to hopefully find safety in another secure outpost, called Beacon. In reality, although they knew things were bad, things are far worse, and survival will be the least of their worries.
Melanie, in spite of her similarities to other children, is different in one very fundamental way. She is infected, as were the other children in the facility, but unlike most infected, she retains her cognitive and emotional functions, and if anything, Melanie functions at a higher level than most children her age. However, to her constant shame, her urge to eat human flesh always threatens to overwhelm her. It’s partly this physical isolation that makes Melanie so sympathetic (other than the fact that, regardless of anything else, she’s still just a kid), and when Miss Justineau touches her hair, or holds her hand, it’s like a revelation. There is a salve that hides the odor of their pheromones and helps to keep Melanie’s hunger in check, but it’s a constant struggle. Among the escapees, besides Melanie and Miss Justineau, there’s Sergeant Parks, who’s always tried to keep strict emotional distance from the kids, Private Gallagher, so young he doesn’t even remember the start of the plague, and Dr. Caldwell, who is still determined to find a cure, and she wants to use Melanie to do it.
If you’re thinking that this book is just another zombie book, it kind of is, but… it isn’t. It’s obvious Carey did his research on epidemiology, and I thought the source of the “infection” was not only creepy, but pretty unique. It’s parasitic in nature but it goes beyond that. After you finish this one, read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy-you’ll see what I mean. But, I digress. Carey is a pro, and I’m a huge fan of his, so my expectations were high, and for the most part, they were met. As the group advances into the fray, full of “hungries” and junkers (survivalists that have taken things to a whole other creepy level), they encounter many tense moments, and come to rely on Melanie to a huge extent. I don’t want to give away too much, but the book starts to venture, later on, into Lost Boys territory, and it’s a unique direction, one that certainly provides much food for thought. This isn’t your usual zombie book, but if you like The Walking Dead, etc, you’ll certainly enjoy this, and I thought it added more than enough of the cerebral to elevate it above the norm. It also provides tons of the type of thrills zombie fans want to see too. Melanie is a complex and compelling heroine, and I found myself rooting for her and hoping, even as I knew it really couldn’t be, for a cure, and a bow tied around the ending. I didn’t get that, but that’s ok, because The Girl With All the Gifts is a journey well worth taking, and I can’t think of a better guide than Melanie. I love it when my thrillers are scary and though provoking, and this one definitely delivered on all levels.