I finished Flesh Eaters by Joe McKinney last night. I read his first book (Dead City) in July and enjoyed it enough to look for his others. This is the third one (I haven’t read the second, but it’s not a strictly progressive series, just stories taking place in the same universe). One of the things that drew me initially to his books was his bio. The first couple of times I looked at the series at the bookstore, I was ambivalent – I love zombie things, but have become picky over the years. I can’t always articulate what it is and what it isn’t that I’ll like, and I like a variety of things, but there are some stories that just don’t even remotely catch my interest, even when I enjoy the subject. The descriptions on the backs of the books left me feeling kind of “meh,” reading a few pages here and there to get a feel for the writing style piqued my interest a little more, but the author’s bio on the inside back cover made me decide it was worth checking out. He’s had an interesting career and seemed like an intriguing person (I put in a link to his website at the end of this; go play). His take on zombies isn’t exactly unique – there aren’t very many places one can go with that anymore – but his books are fast-paced and engaging. My biggest complaints really lie with his editor – too many grammatical errors made it through, in particular “but” regularly used where “and” should be; the term “only” repeatedly used in a way that would indicate an unequal comparison without an unequal comparison being made; and the repetition of the exact same phrase every few pages to describe the smell of the flooded city, the interior of the buildings, the air, etc. I understand the continual reminder of the stench was intended to help set the scene and draw the reader in, but because of the way it was done it had the opposite effect on me. There are other ways to do this – language that shows the smell, rather than just telling me over and over and over and over that things smell like mud, chemicals, and rotting flesh. The world is full of synonyms for these things, and we know how people react to smells: her nose wrinkled as the breeze carried a stronger odor of rot; his eyes burned in the acrid air as he rowed through an oily patch near the destroyed factory; one by one the travelers ahead of them began to gag on the sweet, putrid stench as they floated past the apartment building. Set the scene initially (bad, bad smells all mixed together), go ahead and give a reminder here and there if it seems necessary, then rely on more subtle imagery to carry your theme through the book. My other complaint is a very abrupt personality shift for one of the characters near the end. One character goes from a person who had up to that point showed nothing but respect, kindness, friendship, and compassion for one of the main characters to out of nowhere thinking of her as useless and ineffective, frequently referring to her as a “stupid bitch.” With a little foreshadowing or some sort of cataclysmic event, this could have been an excellent plot twist; as it is, it just feels out of place.
Even so, I enjoyed the story. In Dead City, refugees from Houston have been relocated to several cities after a series of hurricanes destroys much of the coast. The filthy environment has given rise to a new kind of virus – carried out of the city by some of the refugees. That story follows a local police officer going about his regular shift when the outbreak occurs and his struggle to reunite with his wife and baby. Flesh Eaters takes place in Houston, following one of the officers in charge of disaster relief as she tries to both perform her duties and keep her family safe. It starts at the beginning of the first wave of the storms and covers the attempts at evacuating the city, caring for all the stranded people, and avoiding the new threat of zombies. I don’t often feel a lot of suspense when I read stories like this – it’s a zombie story, we all know it’s a zombie story, and the authors typically put in plenty of cues before the big scary monster shows up (creaky footsteps, strong stenches, odd noises, blood, gore, a series of half-eaten bodies, etc.). In this one, while I knew zombies would be showing up, I didn’t know when until the character we were following saw dead eyes staring back at him. The author did an excellent job of building the suspense by making his characters act like normal people going about their lives (albeit in the midst of a natural disaster). For me, that worked far better to keep me “on edge” turning page after page, nearly scanning the pages just to find out if *this* is where they first run into the walking dead. He also doesn’t treat his characters like morons. They recognize that these things are dead, they’re walking around, they’re eating people, we don’t need to try to reason with them. The characters acknowledge what they’re seeing and act accordingly, even while struggling internally over the impossibility of it. It’s a refreshing change from so many stories where half the characters get torn apart trying to talk to the neighbor lady to find out why she’s eating the paper boy’s intestines.
I don’t have any of Mr. McKinney’s other books yet, so I started Freedomland by Richard Price. I only got a few pages in this afternoon, but it hasn’t really drawn me in yet. Some books do right away (Dead City and Flesh Eaters); others are slower to catch my attention, but are still well worth the read (Excavation).
While preparing to write this evening, I stumbled upon Mr. McKinney’s WordPress site (http://joemckinney.wordpress.com), with an entire section devoted to his Dead World series. I haven’t read through it yet, but that’ll be my next stop.