Wednesday, 3 August 2011

‘The First Days’ – Rhiannon Frater (Tor)

There seems to be so many zombie books out there right now that you can forgive the odd stinker here and there. After all, the overall quality in the sub-genre is pretty good (I haven’t read it all but I’ve read a fair few zombie book over the last few years now) so the odds are very much in your favour that your next read will make up for the bad read you just had. That was my thinking after reading John Russo’s ‘Undead’ last week, a book that promised loads only to fail in any kind of delivery whatsoever. Can you tell that I’m still disappointed about this?

Anyway, the ‘next zombie read’ turned up on the doorstep a lot quicker than I’d expected and in a surprise move that I never saw coming at all. That’ll teach me to pay a lot more attention to the internet... It seems that Rhiannon Frater’s zombie tales have been a pretty big deal for a while now with fans of the online serial clamouring for books that were eventually self-published. If that wasn’t enough, Tor then decided that they’d like to reissue what I’m reliably informed is the ‘definitive version’ of the series with the next two books in the trilogy due to be released at regular intervals. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also talk of adapting these books for the big screen. What a time to be Rhiannon Frater!
This is all very well and good but I knew none of this when I opened the book so I wasn’t really thinking much further than, ‘I hope this isn’t another ‘Undead’...’ It wasn’t. ‘The First Days’ may not be a perfect read but I’ve already made space, in my reading schedule, to read the two sequels as and when they are published. I think this is going to be a series well worth following.

What looks like being a pleasant drive to work is rudely interrupted when a dead man jumps into Katie’s car and tries to eat her. Jenni never dreamed that her abusive husband could make her life any worse... until the day she came across his animated corpse making short work of the rest of her family.
Jenni tries to escape the clutches of her undead family and happens across Katie, a meeting that will see them escape the city and into a future where the only certainty is what will happen if a zombie bites you. People are making a stand and once Katie and Jenni have found Jenni’s stepson they’ll make their stand to. There’s a lot to get through first though and even the relative safety of a small fortified town may be fleeting. There’s still hope though and that is worth fighting your hardest for.

I know I’ve mentioned this before but a good zombie novel hardly needs to feature zombies at all. Of course you have to have them, a herd of zombies can up the tension dramatically and what they can do to a person makes for the kind of uncomfortable reading that will hook a reader. Zombies don’t do an awful lot other than that though. They can’t, they’re zombies! No, the real strength of a zombie novel lies in the characterisation of its heroes and how they react to their new circumstances; circumstances that will invariably demand a lot of them.
I’m pleased to say that Frater not only comes up trumps as far as her living characters go but she’s a dab hand with the gore as well. ‘The First Days’ certainly bodes well for the rest of the trilogy.

Frater teams up strong minded Katie with Jenni, a person who finds herself free of an abusive relationship but unable to function outside those very restrictive boundaries. The resulting dynamic sees both characters develop in the face of what is, at times, an almost unceasing flow of the living dead. Here is a situation that demands quick thinking (or you’re dead!) and Frater really lets you know how urgent things are with zombies that can run...
Over the course of the book we see Jenni go from being downtrodden to someone who is able to leave Katie’s protection and seize life for herself with the aid of a shotgun and a ready supply of zombie heads. We also get to see Katie slowly begin to cope with the tragedy that made her start running in the first place. Both characters end the book in a different position than when they began and I loved the way the process felt so organic. Change is inevitable in this particular situation and it’s clear that all these changes are happening because of the zombie’s onslaught. I loved this ‘adapt or die’ approach as not only did it push the characters forward but it also sent them up against all the hard choices that you would expect a book like this to have. Frater doesn’t flinch from forcing Katie and Jenni to confront these situations head on and you’re left in no doubt that these choices weren’t easily made.

The speed at which these zombies can move (and I’m cool with zombies either running or shambling these days, just in case you were wondering...) makes the plot move at a ferocious rate. Even when there aren’t any zombies around, you know that they could appear at any time and Katie and Jenni’s nervousness does the job just as well in terms of moving things smoothly. When there’s a full on confrontation, Frater is more than happy to let the gore fly right up on your face in a flurry of zombie teeth and nails. These are scenes that really get the adrenalin flowing!

Without giving too much away about what happens in the book (even though the trilogy has already been self-published so you guys might well know more about it than I do...) attempts are made to establish a community, in the middle of this epidemic, which throw up questions obviously meant to be answered in the next book. I can see how this is all growing at the right pace but I can also see how people might feel like they’ve been left hanging when they really didn’t need to be (with a certain sub-plot arising from this). I’m happy to wait and see what happens next myself.

The only bit that really didn’t work for me were the constant references to George Romero films made by Jenni over the course of the book. Again, I totally agree with her sentiments (I am not going to a mall in the event of a zombie uprising) but did she have to keep saying the same thing over and over again? It just got tired as did Juan’s moaning about the zombies being able to run. If you’re moaning about it then you obviously don’t feel the need to deal with it do you...?

These were relatively small complaints though when placed against a book that does a superb job of detailing people’s reactions, and what they find themselves capable of, when zombies quite literally land on their doorstep. I’m there for the next book, really looking forward to it!

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten


Jessica ( frellathon ) said...

I was really lucky and got an arc of this one a while back. I loved it and am really looking forward to the next two.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to read a good zombie book. Can you folks recommend 3 or 4 excellent ones to pick from -- the "best of the best" sort of thing? (I'm in the U.S., if that matters.)

lkeke35 said...

Rise Again by Ben Tripp is an excellent book, if you like The First Days. I also likd Allison Hewitt is Trapped by Madeline Roux.
OT: Some of the best zombie books I've read were written by women.

SQT said...

"The Clockwork Century" books by Cherie Priest are fun (steampunk and zombies). "The Reapers and the Angels" by Alden Bell is a favorite of mine too.

resovoirdog said...

@Anonymou, World War Z was an excellent read,

resovoirdog said...

Anonymous try World War Z.