I picked up The Dead, the prequel to The Enemy, without having actually read the book it precedes, with high hopes that Charles Higson, the author behind the exciting Young Bond series, could inject some life into the hackneyed zombie genre. He succeeds, in large part due a new twist that mixes zombie scares with Lord of the Flies: the disease only affects those sixteen and older.
As a result there is a largely teenage cast, which is easy to identify with. Higson doesn’t treat the motley band of 14 and 15 year olds as young children, either. They make intelligent decisions, and sometimes not-so-intelligent decisions, but they don’t descend into chaos like the children in Lord of the Flies. In addition, because his characters are so capable, Higson rarely resorts to the type of dues ex machina so often found in zombie fiction, like the serendipitous cache of guns and food, or a convenient salvation from another group as the zombies close in. Consider a situation when the party finds a museum full of guns, but no ammo. In their typical resourceful style, the kids attach bayonets or use the guns as clubs, rather than throwing them away as if they are useless. Of course, there are instances of luck, but forgivable. Without any luck, it’s doubtful that anyone would survive for very long. That in itself is a scary thought. No matter how prepared, without a little luck you’re toast, especially in a zombie apocalypse.
Jack and Ed, best friends, are the main focus of the book, as two radically different leaders. Jack, formerly shy and self-conscious, is now a headstrong fighter, eager to kill the ‘sickos’ when they attack. Ed, previously popular and confident, is traumatized by the violence and unable to fight. He learns to lead in other ways, but can’t help feeling like he is losing Jack’s respect. The relationship starts a little flat, and I felt as if Ed was a vastly more dynamic character, ending somewhere different from where he started, while Jack stays mostly the same.
The real treat however, is vast host of secondary characters. From Greg, a sarcastic bus driver, to Bam, a gung-ho jock, Higson gives them each a distinct personality and purpose. Sometimes I wished I wasn’t reading about Jack and Ed’s conflict and wanted to spend more time with the other guys.
Keeping with zombie tradition, the ruthless undead don’t discriminate between your favorite character and the one you hate the most. The death count is high, the violence intense, and the suspense tight enough to keep you up at night. As a veteran of Bond books, Higson understands proper plotting and makes sure that the book never sags. While the epilogue occurs a whole year later, most of the book takes place in a few frenetic days. The characters are always in motion physically and, more importantly, emotionally.
Bottom line: This is the zombie book I’ve been waiting for, viscerally thrilling, occasionally funny, and always smart. It doesn’t stoop to quick fixes or cheap scares, has well drawn characters, and even serves as a study of leadership under pressure.
Evan is a learning teenage writer who’s ambition is to become a film director someday, but not until he’s published a few books first. In the meantime, he spends his time playing drums in his jazz band 3 AM Groove, writing for the school paper, building sets on stage crew, and trying to perfect his 100 greatest movies of all time list. He does not like long walks on the beach.