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Book Review: Feed, by Mira Grant

Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot — in this case, my brother Shaun — deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens. As if we didn’t already know what happens when you mess with a zombie: The zombie turns around and bites you, and you become the thing you poked. This isn’t a surprise. It hasn’t been a surprise for more than twenty years, and if you want to get technical, it wasn’t a surprise then.

When the infected first appeared — heralded by screams that the dead were rising and judgment day was at hand — they behaved just like the horror movies had been telling us for decades that they would behave. The only surprise was that this time, it was really happening. [opening lines of Mira Grant’s Feed]

If you’re a SF/F nerd and you haven’t yet heard about Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant, you probably don’t follow the fantastic fiction awards. She received 5 Hugo nominations this year, two under what she calls her “open pseudonym” (that’s Mira Grant, designed to draw some kind of line between the urban fantasy she writes under her own name and the more SF/horror stuff that comes out under the Grant name) and three under her own name. She also won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2010. So, y’know, it seems like people have noticed her. But if you haven’t — and you have even a passing interest in zombie books — I’d recommend this one as a place to start.

Feed is the first in a trilogy (of which I haven’t read the other two yet) of zombie books, collectively referred to as Newsflesh. Briefest of summaries: the book is set about 25 years after the zombie apocalypse, and stars a 20-something brother and sister who run a news blog (yes, the title’s a pun. Go ahead and chuckle and then we’ll move on). One of the premises of the setting is that news and reporting have changed pretty dramatically since The Rising — that when everything went to pieces and the dead started eating people, the mainstream press covered it up and the stories broke on the blogosphere instead; in the ensuing decades, blogs have increasingly become the main source of accurate information about the state of the human condition, as people have had to adjust to the zombified world. As the book starts, the siblings, Georgia and Shaun, are about to start covering their first “big” news story, a Presidential election. …and then things get complicated.

As I’ve said before in this space, I’m not a colossal zombie fan; the traditional Night of the Living Dead stuff doesn’t interest me all that much, and I’m always a little wary of reading books that take advantage of whatever the monster-of-the-year is (which I think zombies definitely qualify for at the moment, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve now become the stuff of romantic comedies). To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember what prompted me to pick up Feed in the first place — but when I did, I was thoroughly impressed, for several reasons.

  1. The lack of apocalypse. Unlike in a lot of zombie books I’ve encountered, there’s no one in this story who doesn’t know the basics of what’s happened; the citizens of Feed have been living with the undead for decades, and zombies have become “normal.” Walking Dead kind of did this, but the events of the comic and the TV show and the video games still happen very close to whatever the original generating cause of the world’s zombiedom was; I liked the fact that this story is unequivocally not about The Rising. It’s about people living their lives in the aftermath.
  2. The worldbuilding. As you might have guessed by now, I’m a sucker for evidence that a writer’s actually put thought into their “what-if’s.” McGuire’s clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what a post-zombiefied world would look like, and about how her particular zombie plague rules would affect things. For instance, any mammal weighing over about 40 pounds can be infected by the zombie virus; this means, among other things, that keeping any pet bigger than a cat is likely to get you dirty looks from your neighbors. Eating in an outdoor space (where a zombie raccoon could come lurching out of the woods at any moment) is a subject for thrill-inducing reality TV. Since everyone carries low levels of the zombie virus in their blood all the time, there are a range of different blood-testing kits (one of the high-end ones is made by Apple) available to make sure that you’re not about to undergo “spontaneous amplification” and zombify. In a trend guaranteed to win this reviewer over, McGuire even thought about how the zombie apocalypse might affect trends in naming. The young heroes, Shaun and Georgia? Their names were both popular in their generation, the one born right around the time of The Rising.
  3. The pacing. The book is clearly an adventure story, a page-turner; I just reread it this week when I had family in town, and there was more than one instance when someone had to pry it out of my hands to get me to engage in conversation about what we were planning to do next. There’s a lot that happens in this book, and the stakes rise pretty steadily throughout without flagging, but I never felt rushed or confused about what was going on (and this is speaking as someone who doesn’t like fight scenes).

I don’t have much to say against the book. The supporting cast is a little bland, not especially memorable, but the vividness of the protagonists goes a long way toward making up for that. The “villain” is a little Saturday morning cartoon in his motivations, and his characterization is the only place where I felt like the book might be winking at its intended readers a little (the author’s from Northern California, and I think she suspects many of her readers will lean toward the liberal side of things).

McGuire also makes one slightly odd choice with her first-person narrator; typically, as I’ve encountered them, first-person stories have a clear sense of where the narrator is “coming from,” the place and time in which they’re telling the tale. I didn’t get a good sense of that in this story; the narrator toggles back and forth between past tense (when she’s discussing events) and present tense (when she’s explaining generalities about either the setting or the other characters, including characters who don’t survive to the end of the book — which some purists might frown on as sloppy craft, since the first-person past-tense narrator is typically seen as retrospective). I noticed it because this is something I’m struggling with in my own book; although I haven’t yet finalized a clear place for the narrator to be “standing,” I tend to follow the rule that unless a character is still alive at the point where my hero’s sitting to tell the tale, I’m going to talk about them in past tense. But since McGuire’s book is framed in the context of blog posts, a loosely “in-the-moment” narrative style actually works quite well.

I’m really looking forward to reading the second and third books. There are also 2 Newsflesh prequel novellas that I devoured in the last few months; one, “Countdown,” is the universe’s Rising story, told from probably 2 dozen different points of view, and the other is a more detailed, almost-real-time account of a particular incident during the Rising, set at (hold your breath, everyone) San Diego Comic-Con 2014 (the title: “San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats”). As a Comic-Con survivor myself, I found that one particularly irresistible. That said, I would recommend holding off on the novellas until you’ve read at least Feed, because I think it’s a better introduction to the universe (and there are things from “Countdown” in particular that will resonate more once you’ve met the Feed characters).

Feed manages to be a thinking zombie book without bogging down in too much prose. All in all, highly recommended.

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4 Comments

  1. Linda

     /  May 25, 2013

    I’m actually reading her October Daye series!
    I’ll check out her zombie stuff! Thanks for the review…need to catch up on my reading challenge of 80 books this year!

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    • How is October Daye? I’ve looked at it a little bit online and am debating whether I want to give it a shot; doesn’t look like my usual fare but I continue to be super-impressed with her plotting and worldbuilding abilities. I finished the second book in this trilogy today (in between writing sessions) and am now almost 200 pages into the third one… lazy weekends are nice that way 🙂

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