“The Girl With All The Gifts” and “The Fireman”
It’s Apocalypse Week here at Can’t Talk Media, which is convenient for me because I love apocalypse stories. Here are two mini-reviews of recent end-of-everything-thanks-to-a-fungus books I’ve enjoyed. It’s a strange duo but a delightful one.
I’ve tried not to spoil big bits here, but if you like to go in totally blind to plot, I’d suggest reading either of these without reading my reviews.
I first encountered M.R. Carey, sometimes writing as Mike Carey, when I stumbled on his “Felix Castor” series. I’m still somewhat heartbroken that the series was done in five books, as his misanthropic medium (or “freelance exorcist”) is one of my favorite characters to ever arise out of the urban fantasy explosion.
“The Girl With All The Gifts” is a story centering around a young girl infected with a fungal spore that has rendered the majority of the world mindless and zombified. In fact, infected people only come to life when they smell edibles—meaty edibles like people. The spore in the story is based on a real-world fungus that invades ant brains and makes them do strange things in service of the spore. So, you know. That’s terrifying.
The book has the usual mix of weapons-crazed survivalists, kind-hearted people who just want us all to get along, and also a group of children who at first appear to be vulnerable but quickly reveal themselves as frightening predators. They are the only infected beings who still manage to retain vestiges of humanity while acting as hosts to the spore (you know, most of the time). A deranged scientist, still dreaming of finding a cure for the spore, is studying them in brutal and inhumane ways. A kind teacher is set up as the deranged scientist’s empathetic foil. Eventually, the camp where everyone is kept becomes overrun by survivalists. The kind teacher rescues one zombie child, and soon the scientist, the teacher, the child, and an army guy are all traveling toward a supposed safe zone in an RV. What could go wrong? Everything, of course.
This book does not have a happy ending. It grows more and more disturbing as the tale goes on, exposing the deep flaws of the human race along with the frightening clarity of a fungus bent on keeping itself alive. Maybe those are the same thing in the end. In any case, I recommend this book not for its uplifting moral center but for its devastating peek into our darkest moments.
TGWATG is well written, fully realized, focused on the lives of diverse women and fuel for many nightmares to come. Good stuff.
“The Fireman” is Joe Hill’s brand new novel, hot off the presses. (Get it? Hot? Fire? Nevermind.) Strangely enough, a book about a worldwide fungal infection that causes the people who contract it to burst into flames and die turned out to be far more cheerful than “The Girl With All The Gifts.”
What I liked best about “The Fireman” was its rather tight focus. Most apocalypse novels pull the camera out to show us the world-wide devastation that occurs, often culminating in huge, sweeping conclusions (see “The Stand” or “Swan Song”).
This book stays closer to a group of infected people who manage to learn how to live with (and even control) their disease, keeping it from burning them up. The apocalypse here is more of a backdrop, a reason this group of people happens to be together. It’s a deep examination of what happens when you put a diverse group of people in a dangerous situation. Spoiler: Bad things happen.
After reading Hill’s last novel, “NOS4ATU,” I was expecting more supernatural horror in this one, but Hill keeps all the frightening bits solidly in the hands of the humans doing each other very wrong. What happens when human beings become desperate, ill, and hungry? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out.
There is one cool, somewhat magical element in the novel. Once people gain control of their illness, they find it lends them some power to create fire. They can light candles with fingertips and create huge fire monsters in the sky. All of that magic serves the story in very practical ways, though, and doesn’t overshadow the main questions about human nature.
Again, the story is full of well-written women; the main character is a nurse who becomes infected while volunteering to help the sick. There are teen girls, older women, and moms all over this novel, and I love that we live in a world where I can write a review of two thrilling novels with more women than men in focus.
“The Fireman” is best described as an amped up version of “Lord of the Flies,” complete with pig pokers. It has a much more hopeful ending (and a little secret coda ending hiding behind the acknowledgements) than “The Girl With All The Gifts.” I recommend both novels, but I recommend this one for days when you need to feel lots of things, including hope.