Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Zombie Youth: Playground Politics

Novel by H.E. Goodhues
Publisher - Severed Press
Release Date - April 2012
Format - e-Book (Kindle Exclusive)
Price - $4.99

One of the things I love about being a substitute teacher is the people I meet, especially when they share my interests in history, film and writing. Just the other day, a colleague of mine from the English Department in one of these schools informed me that one of her relatives had just completed and published an independent zombie novel as an e-book. Being the glutton for flesh-craving shambling punishment that I am I promptly made the purchase and proceeded to devour this feast within a day. With this tidbit in mind, I would like to thank Theresa Ciccone, the Creative Writing/Film teacher at Monmouth Regional High School for directing me to this work.

Zombie Youth: Playground Politics follows the exploits of Sam Maxwell and his fellow survivors at Montville Regional School Complex as they try to cope with the sudden loss of the world they once knew and deal with a land full of the walking dead and deranged psychos who make the undead look preferable. The story proper opens on a typical day in the lives of our fourteen year old protagonist and his classmates. All Sam wants to do is survive the day, avoid the brutish Chris, and win the affection of new-girl sweetheart Alice. However, all is not well as scores of people around the world start coming down with a mysterious illness that only affects anyone over the age of twenty. However, this age barrier offers no protection for the young when teachers, parents, cops and other adults die only to rise again with an appetite for living flesh.

The school is put under lockdown, which while under some circumstances would provide some protection only serves to give the zombie teachers a veritable buffet to dine upon. In the end, only Sam, his older brother Max, romantic option Alice, and several other students survive the initial outbreak with the help of Hector the zombie-slaying janitor. The only other adults who survive is Ms. Koslov, the "strong-like-bull" Russian gym teacher and Elsie the Haitian lunch lady. Among the teenage survivors is Chris, the jerk with a heart of gold, the cute Amelia, Joey - Sam's best friend and the resident joker of the group, and Ronnie, the tech kid and party alchemist who learned everything from the internet. No, really.

Early on, the plot evokes images of an Americanized telling of the anime/manga of High School of the Dead minus the misogynistic attitudes and panty-shots. While much of the "A" plot revolves around the survivors scavenging for food, supplies, and other basic means to survive against ht living dead, there is surprisingly very little tension between them. This surprised me more than anything, since high school is usually (and somewhat accurately I may add) a hot bed for drama both natural and artificial. Zombie novels and movies in general often tear parties apart both figuratively and literally. Instead, everyone falls into a comfortable role and contributes to the greater good.

With the absence of a social ladder and the zombies chomping at the gate, the petty struggles of mankind take a backseat to basic survival. Instead, what we're left with is a fairly and ironically optimistic view of the future, even with the world being infested with walking dead. All of the adults, including the soldiers who appear later on, seem to echo the sentiment that the kids are the only hope for the continuation of the species. As a certified teacher who has spent the last three years as a substitute teacher, I can appreciate this sentiment completely. It's actually a breath of fresh air that is desperately needed, especially when one considers the fatalistic tone of most zombie novels. Zombie Fallout, for example, makes it very clear that this is the end of the line for humanity and no matter what our "heroes" do, this is mankind's last hurrah. That being said I have not yet read the fourth book in that series so time will most likely tell, but that's the general tone that series in particular has given me. While the message of optimism and faith in the next generation is not as heavy-handed as in say, Next Generation, it's still present for those who look for it.

And boy oh boy do they need that sort of thinking when the "B" plot rolls into town as a snaking trail of fire. What zombie novel would be complete without a band of psychotic looters obsessed with the end of the world? But thankfully where Zombie Fallout had rapists and pedophiles as the mainstay mortal baddies, Zombie Youth sticks to a group that is more terrifying than uncomfortable: a religious organization that views the walking dead as angels of God come to purge the wicked. For those of you who ever dreamed of seeing the Westboro Baptist Church as the villains of a story, you could get no closer to that fantasy than this:

Apparently God hates fags, but loves George A. Romero.

It is here where I become a bit ambivalent to the story. The inclusion of human adversaries was inevitable, and the characters in question are indeed more disturbing and vile than even the zombies, but I cannot help but feel as though they're rather artificial. Perhaps this feeling comes from the fact that prior to the zombies, we as readers are unaware of any religious groups in the town, but then again what teenager is versed in religious politics in their community without being a member of a church or temple group or a regulated after-school religious affiliation? Regardless, the group our heroes meet is disturbing and display that there is more to this world than meets the eye.

What zombie novel would be complete without the walking dead for which the subgenre is named? Indeed, what review would be complete without including a critique on them? Little if anything is known about the cause behind the zombies outside of speculation. The accepted theory is a prion virus that only affects adults, which instantly makes me think this whole thing could just be resolved by contacting the Department of Military Sciences. I'm sure after all the stuff he has been through as of late, Captain Ledger would be more than happy to fight more zombies. The living dead of this setting are much more primal, ranging from the basic shambler to ghoul-like beasts who sprint on all fours, have no eyes, and delight in breaking bones to get at the sweet marrow inside. Another type is presented, but that one is best save for those to discover on their own.

Another interesting point to make is that the story is not broken up into chapters as per the usual design. Rather, the format is one long narrative broken up into segments. This gives the novel a fluid pace that has no definitive pause, giving it a fast-paced feel even when little is going on. Passages of time are glossed over, perhaps to allude to the idea that in the zombie-dominated world time has no meaning. However, this also gives the reader very little room to pause and take a break without interrupting the narrative. It's a bit like playing Mario on Game Boy, where you have to sit there for hours and play through because there's no such thing as a save state.

In the end, Zombie Youth: Playground Poltiics is an engrossing, fast-paced and most importantly enjoyable zombie romp, and a surprising hit from a newcomer. The only drawback for this novel is that it is a Kindle Exclusive as far as I've seen, so your miles may vary on accessibility. However, this is one zombie novel that is fun, exciting, and well worth the price of admission. There will likely be more installments to this work, and I will indeed be reading those as they come out. My compliments and best wishes to the writer.

Heroes: An interesting group of students, faculty, and soldiers - 4/5
Villains: The Westboro Baptist Church loves the undead - 3/5
Setting: A compact environment that has lots of action and detail - 4/5
Plot: A two-part plot focuses on survival at all cost - 4/5
Narrative: The tone is rather positive for the future, but the frights are tense - 5/5
Science/Magic: Prion virus creates multiple breeds of zombies and lots of speculation - 4/5

Score: 4/5 - Well worth the asking price and sure to please any zombie fan.

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