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Though I have never read a book by Jonathan Maberry before, this one came home with me in the middle of a pile of library books. And there it stayed until I had renewed it so many times that I had to take it back to the library and check it out again. I have never really taken much interest in zombie apocalypse literature. But something about this book appealed to me to that extent. Maybe it was the fly-leaves’ depiction of several collectible zombie cards, depicting not only notable zoms but also a few slayers and other legendary figures haunting the Rot and Ruin—which is to say, just about everywhere outside the fence surrounding the town of Mountainside, California, and the struggling band of survivors that calls it home.
It all started on First Night, when the dead rose and began to shamble, bite, and multiply. Civilization fell pretty quickly after that. Now only a few towns remain in trading range of Mountainside. Everything mechanical and electronic has been fried by an electromagnetic pulse. The horse-drawn era has returned. Most folks don’t go far outside the fences, certainly without an escort of armed zombie hunters. Food is rationed, and everybody over the age of fifteen must work or starve. When people die, their corpses must be quieted with, for example, a sharp blade to the brain-stem. Outside the fence line is a place of terrifying danger and lawlessness. And that’s exactly where Benny Imura, a lazy kid barely old enough to remember First Night, has to go if he wants his rations.
After trying a bunch of other jobs, Benny grudgingly apprentices himself to his half-brother Tom, who is widely respected for his effectiveness as a quieter of the restless dead. A lot of folks in Mountainside think of Tom as a hero. Two of the town’s toughest and coolest hunters, Charlie Pink-eye and the Motor City Hammer, think of Tom as a threat. Benny, whose earliest memory is being carried in his arms while Tom fled from the home where their parents were becoming zoms, thinks of his brother as a coward and a traitor. Tom thinks of himself not so much as a zombie hunter or slayer, but as a “closure specialist.” In a few intense days in the zombie-haunted wilds, Ben begins to think differently about a lot of things, including Tom.
Dangerous as zombies undeniably are, Benny learns that warm-blooded, live human beings are even more monstrous and deadly. He learns that some people he thought of as cool are really evil. He learns to mingle his fear and hatred of zoms with respect and even compassion. And he locates the hero he never expected to find—not only in Tom, but also in himself. But before he can complete this last step, he must be stirred up by tragedy and injustice at home, and by a desperate and heartbreaking ordeal in the Rot and Ruin. Soon Benny will be hunting not zombies, but men—men who are capable of murder, kidnapping, child exploitation, blood sport, and other forms of shocking violence. Men who think they can take away people Benny cares about and get away with it. Men who are out to get a Lost Girl whose fate Benny can’t stop thinking about since he saw her on a rare Zombie Card. Men who already have the girl Benny loves. Stronger men, with skills and experience Tom hasn’t had time to teach him.
To go after them alone, whether for justice or for vengeance or simply to save the girl (or girls), is probably more dangerous to Benny than to the bad guys. And yet he goes, learning along the way exactly who the monsters are, and what heroes are made of. The adventures of Benny in the zombified wilderness of post-apocalyptic California begin with dark-tinted coming-of-age comedy, a warm glow of puppy love, and a serious helping of family drama. It grows from there into a rich story of courage, survival, and humanity, livened up with a peppery snort of action and horror. It’s one of those books that can make you laugh and cry, as well as cringe, squirm, and bite your lip in suspense.
Jonathan Maberry’s list of titles suggests that he specializes in tales of the Walking Dead. He has also written some novels featuring demons, vampires and werewolves, such as the recent Bad Blood and the Bram Stoker Award-winning Ghost Road Blues. This book kicks off a quartet of Benny Imura novels that continues in Dust & Decay.