Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks 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.
Reading the blurb of this book, you could be forgiven for thinking that this novel is about some sort of cult, holding a little girl in captivity for reasons unknown. Without knowing any better, you may believe the story to be about a mental-asylum, with Melanie as the deranged young patient, or as a dangerous criminal in a high-security prison.
The reality is very different.
Melanie is special, but not for the reasons you may think. Along with a select group of children, Melanie is being held within a military base as a ‘science experiment’ of sorts. She, along with the other children, is exceptionally smart, and exceptionally dangerous. The adults that mind them have to take every precaution to ensure that they don’t have too much physical contact with the children, because, if bitten, everyone is as good as dead. Yes, you read that correctly- bitten. This is a zombie novel, although the word zombie is never used within the book. They are known only as "hungries", and Melanie and the children are anomalies within the hungries population. Rather than mindless creatures out for living flesh, they have adapted- developing social functions and an innate sense of being, despite their dormant flesh-eating tendencies. The children are unaware of their natures- they don’t know any different from the routines they follow and their urges are suppressed by chemical masks that the adults wear to prevent the children from smelling their flesh. Most of the world has been overrun by the hungries, and the military compound is one of the few places where there are still civilized humans (scientists, soldiers and some civilians) living around the London area. There are also small rebel groups known as Junkers living around the outskirts of the cities- fending for themselves and resembling the thugs from the Mad Max films- but otherwise, the cities are deserted save for the fast-moving, flesh-eating hungries.
However, when an incident occurs and the compound is attacked, everything changes. Melanie, her favourite teacher Miss Justineau, the capable Sergeant Parks, young Private Gallagher and ambitiously-focussed Dr Caldwell become unlikely companions. They must work together to traverse the perilous countryside and find safety with the rest of the human population (who were last heard from several months earlier). They don’t know what their chances are of finding anybody, and the going will be dangerous (especially with Melanie’s natural inclinations, Justineau’s protective urges and fiery temper, and Caldwell’s cunning need to experiment). Will they survive the hungries and get to safety, or will this post-apocalyptic world claim several more victims?
This fast-paced novel is well-written and it is easy to imagine the story playing out as a film. The characters, while not all likeable, are well fleshed-out, and you can’t help but relate to Melanie, as she gradually learns who and what she is. Don’t be put off by the zombie themes in this book- although they play a central role in the plotline, they also play second fiddle to the human emotions and morals that are encompassed in this powerful and affecting story.