Back at the beginning of the year there were three books scheduled for a 2012 release that I was looking forward to reading more than any others. The first to be released, Department 19: The Rising was everything I wanted it to be and more. That left two: Zom-B by Darren Shan and The Power of Five: Oblivion by Anthony Horowitz, and on 7th July I finally managed to get my hands on a proof copy of the former when I attended a bloggers’ event held by Simon and Schuster. As soon as I sat on the train home I started it, and had to drag myself off said train when I got to my station, with only a few chapters remaining. I finished it in my car, in the station car park as there was no way I was going to drive the rest of the way home until I had finished it. Now, with exactly one month to go until the September 27th release date, I feel it is time to post my review of this book.
I loved it, from beginning to end, and I guarantee that it is going to be massively popular with Shan fans around the world, and will also gain him a whole legion of new devotees. There is so much I want to say about this book, to explain why I liked it so much, but here’s the problem: this book is near impossible to review without giving away a couple of major plot twists.
I usually hate it when I read a review and I am informed that there are massive “you will never guess these” plot twists, as I then spend most of the book guessing and second guessing said twists, more often than not successfully, so that when they are finally revealed I feel a little deflated. However, publisher Simon and Schuster and Darren Shan have both publically stated that these twists exist, even to the point where Darren pleads with early readers not to reveal them in a special introductory message at the beginning of the book. It’s a little like going to see The Mousetrap on stage, where they ask the audience not to give away the ending when talking to others about the play, but Darren Shan uses the famous Alfred Hitchcock quote, used when promoting Psycho, to encourage his readers to keep their lips sealed: “Please don’t give away our ending. It’s the only one we have.”
I am so, so glad that I have read this book before the kids at school, as I am not sure they would have been able to keep the twists to themselves. One of these twists, which occurs a handful of chapters before the end, had my jaw hitting the ground with a thud, and me having to reread that particular paragraph several times to make sure I had read it correctly. I wanted to hug and throttle Darren Shan at the same time for his sheer deviousness and audacity. And I also realised at that moment what Darren had meant in his opening letter when he said “I’m issuing you with the same challenge that I have set myself – see if you can find a way to discuss Zom-B with those who have not read it, without giving away the cataclysmic plot twists.” How on earth was I going to write a review of this book now?
The story opens in typical Darren Shan fashion. Brian is woken in the night by a raucous noise outside, and he looks out of his bedroom window to discover that the zombie apocalypse seems to have started in his small village in rural Ireland. Cue much mention of skulls being ripped open, brains being devoured, and blood splatter everywhere. Darren is doing exactly as he did in the opening chapters of Lord Loss: hooking his young horror-loving fans with promises of a gore-filled tale. In this opening chapter we are also given a glimpse of a man who I feel will play a major part in this series (which is due to be twelve books long, one released every three months from September). This Owl Man (as he will become known) has huge eyes, larger than any you will have ever seen, and he is not particularly pleasant, and he has a particularly nasty method of saving Brian from a painful devouring by zombies.
The story then shifts to London, and the narration from third person to first person. Our main character is B Smith, a teenager that fits the stereotypical mould when older generations are complaining about “teenagers these days”. Waster, hoodie-wearer, occasional shoplifter… the list goes on. However, there is one trait that B has that will generate plenty of bad taste in the mouths of readers as B is also racist. We have been promised that the Zom-B series is not just about zombies, but that Darren, whose recent Saga of Larten Crepsley work shows how much he has developed as a writer, also wants to challenge his readers with thought-provoking themes such as abuse of power, genocide and racism. In this book we are faced with our first moral question: how much of B’s attitude is based on the beliefs of an overtly racist and bullying father, and how much of it is B consciously using it as a tool to intimidate others. It’s that age old nature or nurture argument? However, the biggest question it will have readers asking, as they put themselves in B’s place, is how can you love your father if he is a racist thug who, when he loses his temper, beats you and your mum?
Of course, we are never allowed to forget the zombie part of the story, and it is constantly in the background to B’s growing problems at home and school as the story progresses. News reports from Ireland, and leaked footage on YouTube, show footage of people being attacked by brain-hungry monsters, and the subsequent destruction of the village by armed forces. B and the other students at the local comprehensive school initially dismiss the reports as some kind of publicity scam for a new movie, but deep down they can’t help but fear that there is an element of truth to the new reports. And then, one day, when they least expect it, everything hits the fan….. and that’s pretty much all I am going to tell you, except that Darren Shan’s zombies are as nasty as any you will read about or see on the big screen.
Zom-B has its gory moments, but it is much, much more than your average splatter-fest. As I have already intimated, the gore is restricted to the opening and closing chapters, and the pages in between are all about building characters and setting the scene, and if it wasn’t for the horror/fantasy element hiding quietly in the background it would seem more like a contemporary YA issues novel. Naturally, given that this is the first book in a series of twelve, and Darren wants to keep his readers hungry for
brains more, it ends on a massive
cliffhanger, with the final major twist appearing in that very last chapter.
There is so much more I want to say about this but can't due to the aforementioned risk of creating spoilers. Readers who pick this up expecting a complete story will be disappointed (although surely you should know Shan better then that by now). This is very much the first part of the much longer twelve instalment series, with one book promised every three months or so for the next few years. Simon and Schuster are taking the brave step of releasing these in hardcover, with a cover price of £12.99, which parents of some fans may baulk at, but having seen a finished copy of this first book, complete with gorgeous cover and inner illustrations, I would suggest that if it gets/keeps kids interested in reading then it is a small price to pay.