The book opens with a lovely, precocious little girl named Melanie living in a military testing base straight out of Dark Angel or Universal Soldier. She describes her sterile living environment, her slapdash education, her solitary existence. Oh, and then she describes Sundays, when she eats her one meal a week. Of live grubs.
Yep. Welcome to Mike Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts. Little Melanie is a zombie.
This book scared the bejeezus out of me. Most zombie books have some sort of rabid rhesus monkey who bites activists, or alien goo that eats brains, or whatever. This book’s science is real, and it’s freaking terrifying! Have you read about zombie ants? Do you ever want to sleep again, Gentle Readers? Yeesh.
So in this book, humans have become susceptible to a mutation of the zombie ant fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. You know, an actual fungus that takes over ants’ brains and controls their actions and explodes their heads and… Have I mentioned the yeesh?
The science is pretty spot-on, for a horror book. And that only makes it creepier. I prefer to be afraid of unlikely things, thank you very much. Now I have a creepy aversion to ants.
So most people are walking fungus zombies with no brains, just a hunger to snack on them. But there are exceptions. Children, who look and act normal, but are infected with Ophiocordyceps. Melanie is the brightest of these.
Helen Justineau is Melanie’s favorite teacher, and has become emotionally attached to her charge, in spite of all the restrictions against it (Slate.com calls their relationship "Matilda...with zombies.") When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, Melanie and Miss Justineau are joined by a few soldiers and the head of the zombie research program in a desperate run for safety.
The research director, Dr. Caroline Caldwell, has a desperate need to examine Melanie’s brain. Yep, the scientist in charge of saving humanity needs braaaaaaaaaains. So many zombie metaphors, so little time. She is cold, calculating, and fascinating, seeing the children's human tendencies as nothing more than a clever evolutionary tactic by the fungus. She reminds a colleague “that the subject presents as a child but is actually a fungal colony animating a child’s body. There’s no place for sentiment here.” Certainly the reader wants humanity to defeat the fungus, but it’s hard to like this unpleasant woman.
And therein lies the most interesting thing about this book. We don’t know who to root for. Melanie is our protagonist; she's also a zombie who has to fight not to eat Miss Justineau's face. Dr. Caldwell is fighting to cure humanity, but she's pretty nasty. You can't root for (or against, really) fungal spores...and it all leads to a very muddled sense of hero and villain, in a truly delightful way.
The ending, too, will knock your socks off. Not the climax, but the very end. About two pages before the book closes, Carey yanks the rug. And you'll like it. Clever, intriguing, and completely unexpected. If you'll excuse the pun, Gentle Readers, this is a zombie book with brains.