Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
This book came with a strong recommendation from Anne. Were she in a high school with zombies, she would totally be friendly with them.
The dead have risen, and they are going to high school. For reasons unknown, some dead American teenagers are still up and running (well, shuffling). Not brain-eating monsters, they are just a bit living-impaired. Phoebe's school is very accepting of the "differently biotic," although not everyone is thrilled with being a magnet school for the undead. How thrilled will they be when Phoebe gets a crush on the zombie football player?
I am going to tear into this one, because I think it has unfulfilled potential, but note that rating above. This is a good book, and you will look forward to the next chapter. The characters I didn't like, I didn't like rather than didn't care. That is good sign. The writing is good, and I am always harshest with books that are good but could be better. I will get back to the good at the end.
Remember that our ratings are "for that kind of thing." Not everyone likes high school romantic dramas, with or without zombies. The notable part is that this is a romantic drama, not a zombie book. They are more of a subculture than a separate species. This is not the romanticized vampire fetishism that proliferates the young adult shelves these days; there is nothing sexy about being a zombie.
So let's tear in. You first notice jarring details, some of which might be fixed by publication. Hair and nails do not grow after death. A football game that is 10-10 at the half cannot end 21-7. The zombies have no power sources. You are supposed to suspend disbelief on that last one, but notice that undead monsters are almost always shown trying to consume something. They are not eating food, and normal activity must burn 500 calories a day. That is a pound a week, so the biggest zombie around would burn itself out in less than a year. The scientists will be disappointed when they realize that it really is magic.
That weakens the "undead as oppressed minority" theme. We get the parallel, what with multiple explicit references to the civil rights fight in each chapter. The only thing understated there is that the lynchings are not an exaggerated parallel. Murder with no legal repercussions, and even with police and government support, has a long history in every country I know. Making the oppressed group zombies, however, undercuts it. There are legitimate reasons to worry about having the undead roaming the halls of the school, even if they seem to have no hostile intent. Public health concerns about corpses aside, these things violate basic principles of biology and physics, so either the religious fanatics are right (they are fueled by some sort of necromancy) or there is some potentially dangerous natural phenomenon going on here. Love and friendship do not generate the kilojoules of energy needed to keep these kids moving.
On the other hand, it seems clear that the hate is entirely irrational. That there are legitimate reasons for concern does not matter if those are excuses to justify existing prejudices. But it does undercut your argument when the villains are right about half the characters' being unnatural monsters animated by supernatural forces. They just happen to be polite, good-natured unnatural monsters seeking friendship and understanding.
The other major complaint is that the book lacks closure. It is like a season of Lost, ending on a new question instead of resolving any of the subplots. And there are numerous subplots, some popping up every chapter or two, that are just abandoned. It is as though Chekhov put a gun on the mantle, mentioned it every five minutes, and then never shot anyone. The main plot falls victim to the same. You can leave the ending implied, you can leave some characters' fates to the reader's speculation, but you cannot just wander off. Some books and authors can support the implications of doing so, but this is not one of them.
Do I need to explain that one? Some books portray the sort of world where protagonists can be killed and replaced. Heinlein frequently has events defy characters' plans and shunt the plot in a new direction. You must build a story to support that kind of weight, rather than letting things go over a cliff in the last chapter.
But maybe I am wrong. Maybe that was the main plot, rather than a major but competing thread in it. In which case, this is really a romantic drama. Relationships are all that matter in the end.
In terms of romance and relationships, Mr. Waters does an excellent job. Half the characters are unsure of how they feel, and the other half will not admit it. It is a touch-and-go state of limbo that accurately presents the webs of teenage relationships (both romance and friendship). A character might not know his own feelings, but they are clear to his/her friends or the reader. Or maybe not: some things remain uncertain, which is completely fair.
Mr. Waters writes well what many write poorly: the inexplicable attraction. Phoebe's interest seems entirely reasonable, even if she has trouble articulating it. All the potential pairings are comprehensible. We are not left wondering what there is to see in Leo or Pumpkin. Many stories fail because they expect you to buy a relationship that does not work at all. This works.
The characters have good interactions. The relationships, potentially romantic or not, have their own dynamics. Phoebe is always Phoebe, but Phoebe might show different parts of herself with different people. It is subtle but compelling and believable.
The book centers on people and relationships, and it does those well. It is a good high school story, one that also has zombies in it. I criticized it for making the standard anti-discrimination cross-cultural story more complicated, rather than abstracting from it, but maybe zombies give it enough distance for a re-approach. I wish more threads were tied up, and with 400 pages I should be able to expect that, but it is a good sign that I still want more at the end.
Expected publication: May 2008
I am too used to seeing stories set in generic fantasyland, quasi-Dickensian England, or indistinguishable middle America. It is jarring when a character is set in the modern day and has his own blog. Hey, this is connected to real life!