The second installment of the Benny Imura series delivers action, mysteries, and oodles of character growth. Oh, and at least two thousand and fifty-nine zombies. And a pair of rad surfer dudes, for anyone over 30 who might happen to be reading.
Benny and his friends have returned to their fortified hometown, training with Benny’s brother Tom in preparation for the journey east. A week before they are supposed to leave town forever, plans are interrupted by neighbor grandpa dying in his sleep. As much as the story is about zombies, it is also about family, love–both romantic and brotherly, freedom, and risk. Who can’t get behind a discussion like that?
Though young adult, I have to say this is one of the better zombie series I’ve read. Like the best, it understands that the problem isn’t dead people, it’s people-people, but I find it avoids hitting the reader over the head with that message. Well, okay, maybe once or twice there is unnecessary reinforcement, but Tom’s talking to teenagers, especially Benny, so it needs repeating a few times before it sinks into those thick skulls. Maberry captures the tone of the teens well; that inner conflict that is so ill-expressed externally, and the bits of wisecracking to cover affection and fear. The friendships and morphing relationships between the teens felt familiar and real, despite the dim haze of many years.
The readers discover along with the characters that zombies seem to be changing. The mystery adds a sense of danger and unpredictablity to what could be a conventional zombie story. Kudos to Maberry’s distinctive elements: freed circus and zoo animals roaming the California wilds, the religious sect that takes a benevolent approach to zombies, the death-match Gameland and the bounty hunter network. The teens learn about some of the greats in bounty hunters through trading cards, a stroke of genius on Maberry’s part. Trading cards are perfect in their practical and entertainment use, and serve as a clever way to foreshadow characters.
I also appreciated Benny’s friend, Nix’, short journal entries speculating on the nature of zombies. Too often zombie books go for the action without taking the time to explore some of the real horrors–is grandpa still left inside that body? Does he feel pain? Her questions help shape understanding of the scope of the problem, and is another way of reflecting on the ethical issues of killing the once-dead. Kudos also for well-imagined characters. While the bad guys may be perfectly villainous, there are plenty of people condoning them that are not so easy to characterize, as the teens discover in Gameland.
If I have one or two complaints, it’s that the chapters near the book’s end become extremely brief. I understand the use of chapters to change character viewpoint and sometimes scene, but towards the climax when they were running staccato lengths of 2 pages, it was felt like an annoying attempt to manipulate the reader into heightened tension. I wouldn’t worry about it, Maberry–the story was perfectly serviceable and action engrossing. One concern I did have is that the way the teens left the town felt contrived, and didn’t square with the initial well-planned trip. The last–very small–complaint is that, well, the characters need to do some maturing, both in emotion and experience. So, of course, they all do, with suitably thoughtful conversations with an adult of their choice (Leilah, Benny) or internal monologue (Chang, Benny). But I guess that’s what taking a bunch of kids into the wilderness is about, zombies or no zombies.
I appreciate the overall atmosphere of positivity. Thumbs up for having real challenges and dangers, but recognizing survival comes at a cost. I appreciate both the realism and the hopeful note.