Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”
My Review (spoilers):
Executive Summary: slow to get going but worth it in the end
We get introduced to ten-year-old Melanie on page 1. She is in a classroom, different than we are used to, but we only slowly get introduced to what exactly is different. Her favorite teacher is Miss Justineau, although they do have other teachers from time to time. They live in a compound to keep away from the hungries (aka zombies). The children live in cells and get wheeled into the classroom Hannibal Lector style each day, all strapped in and ready to learn. Occasionally the students leave by the hand of Doctor Caldwell and never come back, and they haven’t gotten any new students in a while.
One day the Sergeant comes in and has an issue with Miss Justineau getting “too attached” to the children, and he suggests that they aren’t even children. To demonstrate, he spits on his arm and holds it near one of the children who starts chomping and biting at him (still restrained) and so do the children near him. Melanie is very confused about what is happening.
We cut to Dr. Caldwell for a bit to determine that the children are not actually children (after she has dissected her latest two). They have a fungal parasite of some sort that Dr. Caldwell is crudely investigating. After the Breakdown, most high tech equipment is incredibly difficult to come by.
Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell are have very different ideas on how to interact with the children. Miss Justineau treats the children like normal children (at least as much as she can) whereas Dr. Caldwell and the Sergeant treat them worse than animals. But they all ended up in the compound under the same circumstances. They are trying to determine why some of the children that they have been finding are not mindless zombies like the other hungries, but instead can learn and reason and generally go beyond the mindless behaviors of the others. Miss Justineau and the other teachers are there to teach and observe. Dr. Caldwell is there to help create scientific revelations about the parasite to hopefully protect the other humans, and the Sergeant is there to protect all the humans in the compound both from the children, but also from the packs of hungries as well as the Junkers (bands of humans who sort of “Mad Max” about in the outside) who could attack at any time.
Dr. Caldwell requests that Miss Justineau provide a list of 1/2 the class to be dissected, and Miss Justineau is understandably having a hard time with it. Not just because she has become close to the students but she also understands how losing half the class will affect the dynamics. So she holds off on providing the list. In response, Dr. Caldwell decides to start with Melanie. Sergeant Parks gets her, and takes her in to Dr. Selkirk and Dr. Caldwell.
When Melanie doesn’t come to class, Miss Justineau realizes that something is up. She confronts Sergeant Parks who tells her where Melanie has been taken. Luckily Miss Justineau arrives just in time. She confronts Dr. Caldwell and the two break into an argument followed by a physical fight. In the midst of it, the evacuation siren goes off, and hungries break into the window. Dr. Caldwell and Miss Justineau make it out, but Dr. Selkirk does not. No one knows in the chaos what happened to Melanie so Miss Justineau goes out to find her. Instead she runs into a pack of Junkers. Luckily Melanie reappears and attacks them with full force.
Melanie, Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell find Sergeant Parks and one of his soldiers, Kieran Gallagher. They get into a Hummer and leave Beacon. Melanie is faced with existential challenges after killing the Junker. Justineau and Caldwell are at complete odds except that they both want Melanie to live (for different reasons) so they are able to keep Parks from killing her. Off they go to an unknown location. They stave off a few groups of hungries, and then they eventually find the Rosalind Franklin. It’s a huge armored mobile laboratory that Dr Caldwell is very familiar with. As we learn, she was fully trained on the unit, but didn’t end up making the final cut for the mission (and she’s been holding a grudge for the last twenty years). There are no humans or food inside, but all the scientific equipment is intact.
Melanie asks to speak to Parks alone, and when they reconvene after assessing what Rosalind Franklin does and doesn’t have, Melanie is gone. The generator needs to be fixed, so Parks starts on that while Justineau and Gallagher look for food. Before they leave, Justineau asks Parks where Melanie went. She was going crazy inside in close quarters with all the humans. All their e-blocker had worn off, so Parks let her go outside. He figures she can take care of herself. Justineau and Gallagher take off. They only see a few hungries. Most of them have died and have sprouted seeds for the fungus. Eventually they find a storage unit beside a convenience store that hasn’t been looted, and they take all they can back to the RF.
While everyone else is out, we learn that Dr. Caldwell has blood poisoning from the injuries she sustained during the original hungry attack. She’s trying to do what she can in terms of research before she dies. She tells Parks that it doesn’t really matter anyway. When the fungus took over the planet, it was in a juvenile form. Now it’s sprouting into an adult form and pollinating. And when it does, she doesn’t think there will be anything left.
When Justineau and Gallagher return, it’s late but Melanie hasn’t returned. So despite Parks’ arguments, Justineau decides to set off a flare. Melanie knows where the RF is; she just hasn’t wanted to return. She has spent the day looping around bigger and bigger circles until she finds something interesting–some others like her. When she returns to RF, she tells the adults that there are others out there–junkers, she says. Parks doesn’t believe her story. He believes she saw something which scared her, but it wasn’t Junkers. Justineau talks to Melanie who finally gives up the true story. She didn’t want to tell everyone because she was worried that Caldwell and Parks would round all the children up and dissect them. When everyone reconvenes, they realize that Gallagher is missing.
Unfortunately by the time Melanie, Justineau and Parks find Gallagher, the hungry children have already gotten to him, and tricked him to his death. Melanie insists that he should be honored, and as they are lighting his funeral pyre, they hear the engines of RF in the distance. Caldwell has left without them. She doesn’t get far before the hungry children encircle her. She’s trying to figure out how to capture one to dissect it before she dies. She opens the door locks and manages to close the door quickly enough to squash one. She doesn’t hurt his head though, but she needs to get the airlock fully shut because she is being shot at through the gap by the other children. She manages to get as far away as she can until she is stopped by a 40 ft high tower of the fungus for as long as she can see. She decides to dissect the head, and when Parks, Justineau, and Melanie finally find her, she won’t let them in. She’s too close to a breakthrough.
Parks sends Melanie on an exhibition to determine whether there’s a way around the fungus. There’s not. The 2 humans find a place to stay for the night. Dr. Caldwell is able to dissect the brain in peace and finds the answer she’s looking for. Once she’s done, she sees someone outside–a search party, she thinks. She goes out of RF and when she returns, Melanie is inside and wants to know the truth. The original hungries are because the fungus completely took over the bodies and then utilized them to hatch seed pods. Melanie and others like her are second generation hungries where the fungus doesn’t attack and feed on the brains.
Parks and Justineau are attacked where they are sleeping. Melanie hears shots fired on the walkie talkies and arrives to help as much as she can. Unfortunately Parks is bitten by the hungries, but she and Miss Justineau make it out unscathed. The 3 return to RF where Melanie decides to blast the fungus wall with the flame throwers. She’s outside with Parks as little bits of ash begin floating to the ground. Parks asks Melanie to shoot him before he becomes a hungry, and she agrees. But first she explains to him that it’s not ash, it’s fungus seeds. The flame thrower has opened all of the seed pods. She now knows that the original people will become hungries, but the second generation will be like her. They can end the war between the humans, the hungries, and the junkers, and create a new species. When Melanie returns to Miss Justineau, she explains again what has happened, and the book ends with Melanie introducing the hungry kids to their new teacher!
Verdict: 4 Stars
I thought the book was really creative. I am not typically super interested in zombie stories, and I’ve found that a lot of the post-apocalyptic ones are a bit overplayed at this point. So this was a breath of fresh air for me. It’s a bit slow at points, but it pays off in the end.