Monday, July 25, 2011

Zombies Slaying Cards and Brotherly Love: A Review of "Rot & Ruin" by Jnathan Maberry

Benny Imura couldn’t hold a job, so he took to killing. It was the family business. He barely liked his family – and by family he meant his older brother, Tom – and he definitely didn’t like the idea of “business”. Or work. The only part of the deal that sounded like it might be fun was the actual killing.
Rot & Ruin, Jonathan Maburry, page.3

In the zombie-infested world Benny has grown up in, every teenager must work once they turn fifteen—or they’ll lose their food rations. Benny isn’t interested in taking on the family business, but he reluctantly agrees to train as a zombie killer with his boring big brother, Tom. He expects a dull job, whacking zombies for cash. What he discovers is a vocation that will teach him what it really means to be human.
As Benny’s worldview is challenged again and again by the lessons he learns from Tom, he is forced to confront another horrifying reality: sometimes, the most terrible monsters are the human ones.

                This was a very interesting take on the zombie narrative. And yes, it has been done before. The idea that the monsters who scare us aren’t the bad guys, but merely misunderstood backdrops for social commentary is a well devised tool for bringing out many points. And it works great in high school fiction – because who hasn’t felt misunderstood in high school?

                I have spoken many times about my love for the creation of a book world – a universe where the characters can grow, because they are not slated or limited by our world. I think that any series that wishes to be long-lasting, must include a vibrant universe. And this is the key with Rot & Ruin – it starts off strangely, but as the sentences roll along, it builds a world where Zombies have been mostly beat back into the ruin, and people are so disconnected from each other that fear and suspicion allows for those unsavoury characters to swoop in and take advantage. 

                And all this is through the eyes of a often times frustrating, and sometimes pretty insightful fifteen year old boy. Benny Imura. 

                Benny is an interesting character. In this world, the Zombie Apocalypse happened on “First Night” – fourteen years ago. Not only was Benny just a year old, but he lost both his parents in that night – the only memory being his mother trying to shut a door on his zombie-fied father and thrusting him into his older half-brother’s arms and asking him to take Benny away and protect him. Instead of making Benny appreciate his older brother, this hazy memory angers Benny and hardens him against his brother, who he blames for his mother’s death. In a show of infuriating patience (seriously – if he were my kid brother I would have slapped him upside the head), Tom Imura lets Benny pull the pieces of that  night – and the subsequent fourteen years – by himself, only answering questions that are sometimes thrown at him (though usually, a tearfully angry Benny just throws innuendos and insults, Sigh, teenagers.). 

                The Imura brothers live in a little fortified town somewhere in California, on the edge of what Benny calls the Ruin – basically, the desert out of Resident Evil: Extinction, without the cool motorcycles, oil and gas having been eradicated very soon after First Night. The protection of the town falls to a Guard class, of which one of Benny’s friends becomes a member early on in the book. The rule of the town says that at the age of fifteen, people are to go out and find jobs in order to ensure their own rations. Benny, of course, does not want to work – what fifteen year old does, and can’t find anything that suits him, and so concedes to allowing his brother to take him out to the Ruin for a trip. Tom is a bounty hunter, though not in a Boba Fett type of way: due to the panic of First Night, many people left their love ones – zombies and humans – behind when making their way to safety. It is Tom’s job to find these loved ones, and if they are zombies, dispatch them with dignity. 

                Benny, a fifteen year old boy, does not get this. He calls them “Zoms” and just wants to bash skulls in like his idols Pink Eye and the Motorcity Hammer. They are also bounty hunters – they praise their own hunting skills, raving about how they have killed hundreds of Zoms in the worst ways – exciting stories about payback and violence that make Benny think that Tom’s way – the way to cause least damage and retain human dignity, is just boring. 

                There are a few subplots, including a really great end chase scene and a lost girl who kicks butt, but the majority of this book is dedicated to two things: Benny and Tom trying to understand each other and their relationship as brothers; and, Benny coming to terms with his own loss and resentment in order to grow. 

                Both themes were well done, but I personally enjoyed the brotherhood side of it a helluva lot more. The interactions between Benny and tom are very tense – especially during the first part of the book, where Benny is outwardly hostile to his brother and just plain bratty. It takes several trips through the Ruin, with all the different types of people found there, to get Benny to understand that his brother is not the strict, boring, unfeeling man Benny says he is. The interaction between the brothers, especially when walking through the Ruin and just talking, is so well written to feel for Tom and Benny, and you even smile as it looks like their relationship is progressing as it should. It is plenty frustrating – any bromance is (See, Supernatural) – but it is well worth the hard-won truths and positions at the end of the story. 

                Benny has led – relatively, anyway – a very   sheltered life, in a way that isn’t apparent until he and Tom begin to do the family business together. He has not really come face-to-face with zombies – except on his trading cards, and has never had to fight one, at the beginning of the book. They both terrify and confuse him, and that is apparent from his hostility and his desire to fight them, regardless of consequences. 

It takes near the whole book, but a wiser, smarter Benny begins to emerge – he is still plenty frustrating, but through the length of his relationship with Tom, he also becomes a leader in his own right – no longer scared of zombies so much as mindful of the dangers they are, alongside an acknowledgement of the people they were. I think that it is that quality that seperates this book from most zombie books and from those books that ask who the real monsters are – it is the focus on the survivors and the aftermath of secluded communities, without a rehashing of the horror of zombies – a trade in on the horror element for more humanity. 
In all, this was a well written book and I highly recommend it.The second book of this series is called Dust & Decay and comes out soon - can't wait to check it out!

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Up next: Review of I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

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