Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her "our little genius."
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.
Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children's cells. She tells her favourite teacher all the things she'll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn't know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.
There's been a bunch of buzz about this book in the six months since its announcement. Aside a hearty helping of hyperbole, however, we've had next to nothing to go on: only an unsettling excerpt about a girl who loves "learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom" evidently being kept in captivity; and the fact that M. J. Carey is an ever-so-slight pseudonym for the author of the five Felix Castor novels and any number of awesome comics, not least Lucifer and more recently The Unwritten.
So what is The Girl With All the Gifts?
Well... I'm not going to tell you yet. But I was curious, to be sure. With Orbit asserting that The Girl With All the Gifts will be its "biggest cross-over launch ever," I expected loads more from the marketing department; a blogosphere blitz featuring lengthy excerpts and the like. Instead, the crux of the campaign to date has been an assurance that this book would be worth the wait. And it is. From the magnificent moment when what was actually going on dawned on me right through to the bleak but beautiful conclusion Carey has crafted, The Girl With all the Gifts is terrific.
If you were wondering whether or not to bother with it, know now that there's no question. Buy a copy and avoid the internet at all costs. Don't even read the rest of this review!
Pandora [...] was a really amazing woman. All the gods had blessed her and given her gifts. That's what her name means — 'the girl with all the gifts'. So she was clever, brave, and beautiful, and funny, and everything else you'd want to be. But she just had the one tiny fault, which was that she was very — and I mean very — curious. (p.11)
By now you've got to be pretty curious too. Thus, this is your final warning, folks. Going forward, there'll be no avoiding spoilers.
Our main character Melanie — or subject number one, as Dr. Caldwell calls her — is a zombie. A "hungry," according to Carey. But one of these hungries is not like the others:
Most people infected with the pathogen experience its full effect almost instantaneously. Within minutes, or hours at most, sentience and self-awareness shut down permanently and irrevocably. This happens even before the threads of the fungus penetrate the tissue of the brain; its secretions, mimicking the brain's own neurotransmitters, do most of the dirty work. Tiny chemical wrecking balls pounding away at the edifice of self until it crack and crumbles, falls apart. What's left is a clockwork toy, that only moves when Cordyceps turns the key. (p.84-85)
Melanie and her classmates are "high-functioning hungries" (p.50) who have been taught to talk. Who live, though they are indisputably dead, to learn. Incredibly, they're capable of complex thoughts; some even seem to have feelings...
Most humans have given up hope in the years since the Breakdown, but Dr. Caldwell still believes there are answers to be had, so with the assistance of the army, she keeps these uncanny kids under lock and key in a secure facility many miles away from the nearest surviving settlement. There, they go to what passes for class each day, before being wheeled back to their bedrooms by armed guards. At weekends they eat worms, and once a week they're washed — or sprayed, I should say, with a certain chemical. Now and then, the doctor takes one of them away, and Melanie for one wonders where.
Some see what the doctor does as disgusting; others accept it as a nasty necessity. Here's how she puts her difficult position:
"It's no exaggeration to say that our survival as a race might depend on our figuring out why the infection has taken a different course in these children — as opposed to its normal progression in the other ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of subjects. Our survival [...] that's what we're playing for. Some hope of a future. Some way out of this mess." (p.46)
It's set to get worse before it ever gets better, however. When an immense herd of hungries overrun the compound, only a few individuals escape the fray: Sergeant Parks, Private Gallagher, Dr. Caldwell herself, and Miss Justineau; meanwhile Melanie, who has has only just begun to realise what she is. Who has begun, all of a sudden, to feel her hunger.
Together, this motley lot have no option but to make a break for Beacon, where Dr. Caldwell can presumably resume her research, but when their Humvee gives up the ghost, it starts "to sink in that a journey you could do in half a day on good roads has just become a four- or five-day trek through terra completely incognita." (p.143) Will Melanie, in the erstwhile, be their damnation, or their saviour?
The answer might surprise you.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a book full of surprises, in fact, from the shocker Carey deploys early on all the way through to the apocalyptic decision Melanie must make come the gruesome conclusion. But by far the biggest surprise about this awesome novel is that it has a huge heart; an emotional core that most novels like it lack, content as they are to tell tales of the last days between bouts of particularly visceral violence. The Girl With All the Gifts is so much more than another one of those.
Without giving too much of the great game Carey plays away, it's a love story, first and foremost, between a student and her teacher: the touching tale of the relationship between Melanie and Miss Justineau, which is roundly reversed by the end of the text, to tremendous effect. In the interim, Melanie's love is like a lens through which Carey has us view the events of The Girl With All the Gifts. From the innocence of her crush in the clinical facility to the development of more mature feelings as her situation becomes increasingly complicated, subject number one's self-awareness, as well as her awareness of the wider world, very much mirrors our own gradual understanding.
Carey charts a narrow path through this poor girl's world, but what we see of it, bleak as it may be, we believe. In large part that's thanks to the author's handling of Dr. Caldwell, whose scientific smarts help to contextualise the biological horrors our survivors come across. Picture spore pillars and cottony forests of colourful fungus; the look and feel of these and the other weird things we see put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris series.
Fans of Raising Stony Mayhall and The Reapers Are the Angels will be most at home, but this massively satisfying zombie novel is as approachable as it is focussed. It has a heart where most such stories have a hole, and a cast of characters that are more than a match for its fantastic narrative. The Girl With All the Gifts' publicity promised an awful lot: it's my pleasure to tell you M. J. Carey delivers on every inch of it.