It starts with main characters and best friends Jack and Ed fighting off hoards of their former teachers at their secluded and exclusive boys' school. They're part of a group of surviving students holed up in one of the dormitories- after convincing their remaining group that it's not safe at school anymore, Ed and their friends set off for the countryside but Jack is determined to see his home again. On their not-as-straight-forward-as-they-would-like way out they rescue a second group of boys from the school chapel and gain a solitary girl, the French master's daughter Frederique. When the group are ambushed on the edge of town by a group of young, not-too-diseased adults, they sustain some pretty heavy losses and it all looks set to end for the boys. Even when it's life or death, Ed struggles with the idea of killing. He just can't seem to make himself do it. Fortunately for him, at the last second they're rescued by a coach driven by what seems like a healthy adult. Seeing strength in numbers, the group team up with the coach's inhabitants; a couple of primary aged kids, three attitude-heavy rude-girls and a couple of older kids. The stay for the safety and for the ride but it all goes quite spectacularly wrong for their driver.
The Dead populates the familiar tourist attractions of London with more settlements of kids- mostly in this instalment the Imperial War Museum. Where better to hole up during a Zombie apocalypse than in a building dedicated to warfare and weaponry? I loved how meticulously researched the museum sections are the references to the particular exhibits and galleries added more than the necessary detail and authenticity to the book and it really ensured that London played its part properly. The Oval and the Arsenal stadium also feature a little. This second part of the series also introduced environmental dangers- it's been a long time since fire was able to rage completely out of control but that's the reality now for these kids, and being burnt to death is no more pleasant than being eaten alive.
For the first half of the novel I still considered the cast of The Enemy to be the main characters and was waiting for this bunch to meet up with them. However, as the story progresses Ed, Jack, Frederique and the rest developed brilliantly and hacked out their own corner of the story, their own roles and their own share of the reader's concern. I liked how different best mates Ed and Jack were; one insecure about his appearance (due to his birthmark) but brave; a natural leader. Ed is good looking but struggles with the idea that he might be a coward and afraid he's not a survivor. Their difference, opposing reactions, opinions and coping strategies create loads of friction that kept them unpredictable and dangerous. I really liked the character of Chris Marker in this book. One of the original dormitory boys, he's always reading, even during an attack. He takes charge of the museum's library and starts thinking about what is surely one of the most important (if not entirely practical) questions; if the World is crashing down and society has collapsed, who is preserving and protecting the accumulated sum of human knowledge? Surely without this knowledge any future civilisation starts at year nought. That's a loooong walk down the road of progress before you get Internet again.
This book does a brilliant job of filling in the gaps left in the story of The Enemy and creating a richer, more complex and infinitely more dangerous world. Though for the most part the narrative follows a completely different cast of characters in similar but definitely different scenarios, there are a few individuals that cross over from the pages of the first book. I love the feeling of that sudden burst of understanding when you as a reader put two and two together and join up the dots. We learn more about David King, knowing that he will eventually become the little dictator in charge of Buckingham Palace. We learn the origin of St. George, the dangerously intelligent grown up that led the siege on the Waitrose supermarket in the first book. We can see Higson expertly pulling the strings of his world, revealing links and connections between the scattered bands of kids and their increasingly decayed assailants.
In all honesty, I can't praise these books enough. So far this series is genuinely tense, it's properly chilling and there's no heroic immunity. Higson will and does kill off a main character every now and again. Being central does not make you safe. The quality of the prose is brilliant. Unnecessarily brilliant. It's already full of bum-clenching tension, gore, anarchy, tyranny and brutality; there is absolutely no need for it to be skilfully and intricately written. But it is. The imagery is second to none and the keenness and accuracy with which the streets of London are rendered is pretty amazing. Higson seems to have a really good understanding of how people (kids especially) tick. He knows what scares them, what motivates them, how far people will go to get what they want. He sort of sneakily raises questions about power and government, about how those that seek power almost always turn out to be inherently evil and that those who have responsibility thrust upon them against their will are always better, fairer, more beloved leaders. The idea of religion and its value/lack of value in real everyday survival is raised in this book too. It's possible that Small Sam, snatched by the grown ups in the first book is about to become a God...
Brilliant. I've bought the rest of the series- I need to see how the big arcs pan out.