It's difficult to know what to say about The Girl With All The Gifts without spoiling a twist that occurs early on in the novel and governs the entirety of the story from then on, but I think I'm safe to say that this story is set in an imagined dystopia, where huge population loss has decimated Britain and the few survivors hang on in military bases. On one of these bases lives ten-year-old Melanie, who spends most of her time in a cell and the rest in a classroom, where she soaks up information, especially Miss Justineau's stories of Greek mythology. But she and her fellow pupils are treated like dangerous animals, shackled to their seats and hosed down with disinfectant every Sunday. To Melanie, this is normal, but the reader realises within the first few pages that something is wrong...
This is a gripping and well-written thriller that runs along familiar lines, but manages to rise above its competitors by the sheer effectiveness of its storytelling and its careful handling of the central character, Melanie. I find that using child narrators is a very risky business, as it's so easy for the author to depict a child as twee, unrealistically naive, or sickeningly perceptive and honest. The depiction of Melanie, however, is almost entirely successful. This is partly due to her secret, which steers her depiction away from the usual cliches of childhood, partly due to the fact that she is not the only narrator, and partly because she does not narrate in first person, so MR Carey does not have to attempt the 'voice of a child'. I still had some niggles about her presentation, such as the story she writes early on in the novel, which does not read to me as the work of a ten-year-old with a 'genius-level' IQ, but as the work of a younger child with this level of ability. However, this can possibly be explained by the fact that we do not know how long Melanie has been in education. Still, I felt a little uneasy about her flawless moral code, and I could never relate to her quite as closely as I could to the other characters.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast are satisfyingly individual. Miss Justineau is the most traditionally likeable, but I found myself increasingly fascinated by the two soldiers and, especially, by the most morally suspect member of the crew, scientist Caroline Caldwell. I could never quite tell whether Caroline was meant to be the villain, fulfilling a 'mad scientist' stereotype, but I hope not, because I found her much more interesting as a 'grey' character. Although Caroline oversteps a certain moral line at least once during this novel, I found that I was still broadly sympathetic to her, and understood why she adopted the mindset she did to do the job she had to do. Her final futile discovery is a fitting end to her journey, and she performs the role of antagonist in the narrative without descending into cackling evil. This is a key addition to Carey's story, and I don't think that the novel would have worked nearly as well without her.
I would recommend this novel both to established SF fans and to those who do not usually read SF. Unlike most novels with a twist in the tale, it delivers fully upon what it promises, and does not rely on gimmicks to supply its consistently mounting tension. It should also have considerable crossover potential for young adult readers. Good stuff.
on 8 February 2014
This was a very difficult review to write. I have a lot of feelings, that I haven’t yet untangled. But I want to let out some of this emotion in the form of this review. I have a lot to say, but I can’t say too much – the details of this book have been so wrapped up by the publishers that it would feel a shame to spoil anymore than they would like. I will say that I was looking forward to this book from the moment it was announced, spurred on by my love of Mike Carey’s Lucifer graphic novels. And now, this looks to be one of my favourite for the year – already!
Melanie and the children are not like other children. They stay in their rooms when not in class, which is led by one of four different teachers. There, they are taught the geography of England and the world – both things they have never seen. In fact, they have never seen anything but their cells, and their classroom. They know where freedom, whatever that is, lies – at the end of the corridor, behind a steel door. But when children are wheeled out of there, they never seem to come back…
Oh, and that’s the other thing. Whenever the children are taken to class, or to shower and eat (a once a week event), they are strapped into wheelchairs (despite the fact they can walk just fine), which neck straps and all. This is all done by a soldier, while two others watch on, guns pointed at the children’s heads.
Melanie’s world is not the world as we know it.
Nor is it the world as she knows it, come to think of it. She has never seen sky, and, until the day Miss Justineau forgets herself and strokes the little girl’s hair, has never felt human contact before. Even with her genius level IQ, she just doesn’t understand – from the big questions, like why they can’t go outside, to why their drunken teacher tells them the population density of Birmingham doesn’t matter, because the population of Birmingham is really 0. But…that’s not what they should be being taught.
This is a twisting book. It runs circles, and then double backs on you. It’s a quiet book, for sure, especially given its subject matter, but it’s got a lot of weight in it.
Spoilers in the following paragraph – not huge ones, just enough if you wanted to go into this book blindly. You can skip the next paragraph, and read ahead instead, if you don’t want any info.
But this is a (this is the naughty word) zombie novel at its most basic level. What I liked was the fact it isn’t a shooting and bloody book. The zombies, as physical beings, are not the matter here – mostly their effect on a mental level is what matters. Because there are mysteries here – existential, as well as medical. While Dr Caldwell, the last remaining scientist with a slight chance, who only has this facility that the children are on, is hellbent on finding the cure, she is inadequately equipped. And there are many more problems than that later in the book.
Back to spoiler free waters, the book is also about the care and protection of a young child. It is about a troubling and complicated friendship between Miss Justineau, who is trying to absolve herself from former sins, and Melanie, who puts them all in danger, but is full of platonic infatuation for her caring teacher – the only one to ever show her affection.
Then there’s Parks, a soldier at his core, who finds himself faced with difficult decisions and difficult decisions. He starts off a bastard that you slowly come to care for. And Gallagher, who is under Park’s command, a troubled young man who has known of the discipline and bravery for soldier work, but will do anything to escape his troubled life at home.
This is not just a post-apocalyptic novel. This is a post-apocalyptic novel with feeling – that will twist you up as you see the bad things coming for the characters you don’t want hurt, and will let you sigh with relief when they struggle out of tight corners. We begin in a static that changes rather quickly, and the novel you thought you’d started turns out to be a totally different one. I can’t help but be vague to stop myself from spoiling any surprises.
But the ending is what really makes this book. It is as surprising as it is inevitable. But again, I won’t say much more.
I will admit that the prose style left my feeling slightly detached from the drama, but I still felt something. I’m just nitpicking now, to try and find a negative, but I am definitely emotional compromised by this book. It’s wonderful, and one of the best I’ve read in the post-apocalyptic genre, because it sneaks up on you and throws things at you that you never thought you’d see.
I do love Mike Carey. Highly recommended.
on 21 August 2015
I didn't know anything about this book coming into it, which is always nice. I wasn't sure if it was sci-fi or thriller.
I was pleased to find the novel was dystopian and that I was engrossed in the early sections, which introduced the main character of a 10-year-old child, Melanie. The initial chapters of the novel are set in a military base and within this narrow environment the book works really well - the mysteries of how Melanie and her classmates are, what happens to the missing children and what lies beyond the bases walls are all compelling. Melanie herself is a well-written child character who immediately has your sympathies. It's difficult not to be moved by the situation Melanie and her classmates are in.
However, as the novel progresses and other locations are introduced, I felt it tailed off and I lost interest a little. The problem for me was that once the initial mysteries had been answered the rest of the book (about 2/3 of it) became a rather standard genre (I won't name the genre but it will be pretty apparent once you understand Melanie's condition) novel about a bunch of characters travelling cross-country whilst in constant peril. The intrigue I felt early on was gone and whilst the rest of the book was well written I was no longer enthralled.
Aside from Melanie, I didn't really care a great deal for the other characters, which didn't help.
Overall though, I think this is a book worth reading. Some people will love it and others, like me, will enjoy it with some reservations.
on 26 June 2015
I think I'm being a bit generous with 4 stars. It's really just a measure of my overall enjoyment of it, which was quite high. But I did have some issues with it. Firstly, the synopsis is very, very similar to the Naughty Dog video game "The Last of Us". The book was published in 2014 and the video game was released 12 months earlier, in 2013 (and in production for a number of years before that.). Both the book and the video game, are set 20 years after humanity has been devastated by widespread infection from a mutation of the cordyceps fungus. In both the game and the video, humanity is reduced to pockets of survivors in fortified enclaves, who scavenge an existence out of the remnants of the old world. In the game the main protagonist is a young girl and much of the story is focussed on her relationship with a surrogate father figure. In the book the main protagonist is a young girl and much of the story focusses on her relationship with a surrogate mother figure. I cant go on without revealing spoilers, but the similarities between the two are too numerous to ignore. I would stop short (just) of saying the story is plagiarised, but the synopsis is definitely not original.
The second issue is with some of the science. The idea of a mutated cordyceps crossing the species barrier to infect humans, is staggeringly unlikely, but I'm actually OK with that. If that was the only 'leap' I'm asked to make as a reader, I'd have no issue. But unfortunately, there are a number of examples in the book where the science described, is either impossible, or so unlikely that suspension of disbelief is shattered. In some cases the explanations offered violate laws of physics. For example we are told that the 'infected' can survive with a bare minimum of a bowl of worms per week. A single bowl of worms simply doesn't contain enough energy to fuel the activities described, no matter how efficient the metabolic processes. I have a science background and perhaps I'm being too picky, but that simple balance of energy in must balance energy out I would think is common sense to most. In other places, the biological explanations are glossed over. We are never sure if the infected are dead or alive and are described as both in parts and something in between in others. Something is either dead or alive. Dead is an absolute state and is pretty easy to define. If there are signs of life - metabolic activity, cellular function, movement, cellular respiration, reproduction etc - then the thing aint dead! If you are going to go with 'the dead are risen' then you need a supernatural explanation by definition. If you are going to go with a scientific explanation - and this book does, then stick with it. In parts the book wavers between science and the supernatural, like it's not sure what it's trying to be. It just doesn't fully work for me. I would like to go into detail, but I cant without revealing critical plot points and spoilers.
Finally, the ending seemed a little rushed and implausible. Like an afterthought. Like the author was struggling to figure out how to bring it all together and settled on a plot arc that felt incongruous with the rest of the book. I wasn't satisfied with it.
So why have I given it 4 stars? Because it's beautifully written. It has pace and excitement, intrigue and dynamics. The characters are very 3 dimensional and you do care about them. In spite of a few fairly critical faults, I found it hard to put down. That alone merits 4 stars.
In the mornings, five mornings a week, Melanie waits quietly in her cell for Sergeant Parks and his team to collect her and take her to class. She hopes it will be a Miss Justineau day, because Melanie loves the days when Miss Justineau takes the class. In particular, she loves the stories that Miss Justineau tells; tales of Aeneas, of Pandora, of places and people Melanie feels she knows and understands, out there in the world Melanie has never seen. Because Melanie and all her classmates are special and so they must be treated as such.
Quite what’s happening in this book takes a little while to unfold before the reader; seeing things initially from Melanie’s perspective, things sit a little off centre from what we might consider ‘reality’, until the reader starts to understand why. When Melanie tells Sergeant Parks that she won’t bite, he doesn’t find it funny. And when you find out why, that’s only the beginning of the shocks that wait for the unsuspecting reader in this book. Is the fate of humanity hanging in the balance? And what can Melanie do about it?
This is not a book for the faint-hearted; it’s emotional, and it’s bloody, and everybody in this game is playing for keeps. But if you like a gritty dystopian viewpoint from which to view our possible future, this is a book that will have you pinned to the pages. This is a fantastic book; breathless pacing takes the reader through a narrative that’s clever, ‘real’, and just close enough to the bone to leave you faintly worried as you close the last page. Brilliant.
on 3 December 2015
The concept for the book is pretty interesting but it would have made a nice novella. Sometimes it repeats things over and over until you feel like screaming "I get it!!! Just move the plot along please!" It's an easy (but long) read and the last 50 pages are interesting but there are about 300 pages of zombie filler in the middle.
This dark, post-apocalyptic tale is a stunning thriller which kept me on edge all the way through. We start with the point of view of Melanie, a young girl kept in a stark and inhuman bunker with class mates and a selection of teachers. Slowly, we realise why. They are under military control and only one person who comes into contact with these children, the teacher, Miss Justineau, retains any vestige of humanity. Can we blame them? We don’t yet know what’s happening ‘out there’. A fungus has infected humanity and the scientists are desperate to find a cure. Do these children carry an immunity and if so, how can it best be turned into a cure?
I was absolutely gripped by this story and by what it tells us of human nature and its response to adversity. The little girl was a haunting figure and all the way through I wanted her to be safe. I cared about her and her survival. I also felt for her teacher, fighting against immense odds to look after her charge. Other characters pulled me or repelled me, but sometimes I changed my mind about them as their stories unfolded. The end was sublime. Horrific in some ways but ultimately hopeful. It’s a haunting story and I shall not forget it in a hurry. Highly recommended.
on 3 March 2015
I agree with many reviewers - this book starts wonderfully (no wonder Amazon lets us sample the first chapter), but sort of peters out. Once the location of the story shifts (I'm being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers), it never really retrieves the intriguing tone that made me buy it. it becomes the standard 'hiding from and occasionally killing in a gruesome manner' zombie tale. I like zombie books - I've always liked trashy horror - but I thought this was going to be something fresh. Unfortunately, it appears the zombie trope is a bit of a dead end (sorry) - there's not much scope for emotion and plot in a shambling corpse, and if you try to make it more than that, then it's not really a zombie any more. It comes down to a classic 'fight or flight' scenario every time.
Having said that, this is better written than 99% of zombie books, some of which read as if they were written by shambling corpses. And it does start very well. And I did read it all the way through, so it is readable. I just think it's a shame that so many authors now (Gillian Flynn, I'm looking at you) excel at writing the set-up, but can't provide a satisfying resolution. Maybe water fluoridisation would help?
on 10 February 2015
All the while I was reading this I wanted to finish it. It's certainly an interesting concept and all the more haunting as it seems like something that could almost happen, well, in part at least. But overall, I found it gruesome, depressing and actually quite unpleasant. I'd give it 5 stars for the concept and the execution as it is very well-written, with believable characters that I did actually care about. But I didn't really enjoy it because it was just too dark, with no light on at the end. A depressing read.
on 3 July 2015
I really wanted to like this book and there were parts of it that I did, but a lot of it that was just mediocre. I certainly don't think it lives up to the hype although it was an interesting take on the zombie genre. In the first half of the book I enjoyed the way the author hopped from one character's pov to another, even taking on their stylistic ways of talking/thinking, but as the story progressed and the action picked up (a little) this just didn't work for me as it then showed events twice - hopping slightly back in time so you could see it from someone else's pov - it just stopped all flow and momentum of the story. I never really felt an urgency either, didn't think it was particularly fast-paced. Neither did I feel that we got a proper grip on the Junkers and the threat from them never felt very...well...threatening. It was OK, but I think it could've been brilliant. Without giving anything away, the ending is clever, although unsatisfying.