Friday, May 21, 2010

Feed by Seanan McGuire writing as Mira Grant (zombie thriller, Newsflesh trilogy)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission.

In 2014, the Kellis-Amberlee virus — the one that cured cancer and the common cold, then combined and mutated and now turns its dead infected into zombies — spread quickly throughout Santa Cruz, California, along with the rest of the world, killing 32% of the population the first summer and resulting in the "Rising" of shuffling undead that have dominated for the last 25 years. Now in 2039, inseparable sibling duo Georgia and Shaun Mason spend their days tooling around the area in a "traveling blog center," a former news van outfitted with state of the art electronics (camera feeds, wireless tower, backup storage).

They operate After the End Times, one of the most popular news and entertainment sites — traditional media proved to be unreliable during the Rising, so people turned to blogs for their news — and keep an eye out for signs of viral amplification. ("Amplification" because everyone is infected but most are still dormant or of a lesser grade, like Georgia's own retinal Kellis-Amberlee, which results in always-dilated pupils, necessitating her wearing sunglasses all the time, and guaranteeing that any retinal scan comes up positive for viral amplification.)

The bloggers are divided into five camps: the Newsies, who report the unvarnished truth; the [Jon] Stewarts, who are more commentators than reporters; the [Steve] Irwins, who court danger for vicarious thrills; the Aunties, responsible for soothing recipes, remembrances, etc; and the Fictionals, who provide a steady diet of escapism. The Masons' immediate crew (not counting their associates in other areas) is equipped with three of these: Georgia is a Newsie, Shaun is an Irwin, and their tech manager, Georgiette "Buffy" Meissonier ("I'm cute, blonde, and living in a world full of zombies. What do you think I should call myself?"), is a Fictional.

(The reasoning behind Georgia and Buffy's similar given names is purely due to George Romero's becoming a figure of hero worship after the "rules" given in his movies turned out to be incredibly useful in a real-life world of zombies. I assume Shaun is just named after this one.)

Things get very interesting when Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy are tapped to cover the presidential campaign of Senator Peter Ryman first-hand, accompanying him as part of his personal press corps. When some zombies get past the security at a rally of Ryman supporters, and later when the senator's ranch is terrorized and family members die, signs point to sabotage and then conspiracy. Some unexpected people are behind it all, and Georgia spearheads the investigation in spite of the potential danger of doing so.

Author Mira Grant (the open pseudonym of writer/musician Seanan McGuire, author of the October Daye urban fantasy series of novels) starts Feed (the first novel in the her Newsflesh trilogy) off in just the right way for a novel based in action: with a chase that culminates in an airborne motorcycle and the driver's realization that dying on impact would be one of the better case scenarios.

Grant ends every chapter with blog posts from the various characters (primarily Georgia's Images May Disturb You and Shaun's Hail to the King), showing the different sides of the characters in a way that is more effective than simply adding information into the narrative, forwarding the story at the same time.

Considering its primarily subject matter, Feed is surprisingly low on grue, at least early on. Grant focuses more on the imminent danger to her characters, and a certain level of tension pervades throughout the proceedings; you never know when the next attack is going to take place. The author folds in the futuristic aspects of the story seamlessly, blending the sci-fi, horror, and mystery with real skill, and Feed manages to be a satire of news organizations, the government, and the human race in general — with pithy dark humor laced throughout and unforgettable characters.

Feed is one of those rare books that has a little something for everyone. Even people who've never read a zombie novel — even who think they wouldn't like zombie novels in general — will find something to like here. There's political machinations, good character development, well-drawn relationships, behind-the-scenes conspiracy, action, murder, love, technology, suspense, and some very surprising choices for a genre novel, not to mention the all-too-rare focus on modern methods of communication — something that has still not really been absorbed by most current fiction.

Newsie Georgia is the ideal choice for narrator; she is grounded, focused on the facts, but sensitive enough to ensure that the emotions resonate. Irwin Shaun or Fictional Buffy would be more likely to taint the tale with opinion or digression (as we find out during the couple of chapters Shaun narrates). Similarly, the narrators of the audiobook of Feed suit their characters, with Paula Christensen performing Georgia and the other characters in her chapters with skill and sympathy. Conversely, Jesse Bernstein, who sounds a bit too much like David Sedaris to be in this book, doesn't seem up to the demands of his roles and actually detracts from the text instead of enhancing it.

So learning that Shaun in fact does preside over the sequel (once Blackout, now Deadline) was a disappointment to say the least. But that's judging a book unread. Lastly, I must give kudos to Orbit cover designer Lauren Panepinto for capturing the novel's concept and feel excellently, including the pun in the title. (For those who don't get it, "feed" refers to both zombies and blogs.) Feed is terrific entertainment, likely to be remembered as the one that put zombies over for the previously uninitiated.

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