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This review is from: The Return Man (Paperback)
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The Return Man is a cracking read in the newly saturated zombie apocalypse sub-genre, which is faithful to its Romero roots with some new angles to play.
What's tired, tested and true are the creatures themselves, shuffling hordes clothed in vestiges of their old selves in various stages of imaginative decomposition, overwhelming in their numbers and unredeemable in their hostile intent to have you for lunch; the deaths by zombie are very true to the extreme gore of the Romero originals, and then some; also present are complex characters, driven to moral ambivalence by their situation, and some out and out psychopaths.
What's new is that more often than not in this sub-genre civilization has completely disintegrated. Here a new political and social structure has asserted itself, what is in effect more than half the country turned into a huge gated community (the Safe States) in quarantine, and ruled over by the New Republican Party. Outside of this are the Evacuated States. This is an effective setting for the action.
There is also a new conceit of the un-dead being driven by vestiges of strong emotion and memory to return to old favourite haunts (although Romero did sketch on this especially with his mall fixated zombies in 'Dawn of the Dead') and the central conceit of bereaved humans in the Safe States paying the protagonist Henry Marco to 'return' i.e. execute their un-dead loved ones to a final rest is a good and fresh one to hinge the action around.
Characterisation and character development are both very well done here. Marco is an effective action hero but with a heart and brain, and his wrestling with loss to some kind of resolution at the end is well done.
The story develops into a kind of road trip from Hell as Marco is employed by shadow Government figures to 'return' and retrieve the DNA of a presumed dead prominent neuro-scientist and old colleague of Marco's (Roger Ballard), who may or may not have found the seeds of a vaccine. He's to be given a military escort but this is sabotaged and eliminated (in one of the goriest passages in the book) by Chinese agent Keng Wu who assumes a US military identity. Wu is a well drawn and developed character who behaves with a sociopathic detachment until the end but is haunted by the ghost of his humanity.
In the bleakest examples of this sub-genre it boils down to 'survival horror' where the protagonists are driven to do anything to survive. This novel is about the fight to hold onto personal integrity, humanity and values in the face of ultimate atrocity and horror, and it's ultimate message is not without hope.
This is a recommended page turner with action and horror by the bucket but told with head and heart.