‘Rot & Ruin’ by Jonathan Maberry – highly recommended.

Nearly fourteen years ago, a freak virus swept across the world – turning those infected into the undead. Benny Imura has grown-up never knowing anything different; his last memory of his parents was of them becoming zombies. Now Benny is fifteen, and joining his brother Tom in the ‘family business’ of zombie killing.

Benny and Tom head into the Rot and Ruin, an area full of the wandering undead, and Benny realises that being a bounty hunter isn’t just about whacking zombies. Benny finds his beliefs challenged – and discovers that sometimes the worst monsters you can imagine aren’t the zombies, after all…

‘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:

  1. Figure out how not to get killed by zombies.
  2. Figure out how to kill zombies.
  3. 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.

Jonathan Maberry is an American thriller/horror writer who has won the Bram Stoker Award five times. 

He’s best known for the Joe Ledger thrillers, the Rot & Ruin series and the Dead of Night series.

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