on 17 August 2017
Book 2 of Charlie Higson’s ‘The Enemy’ series doesn’t see the return of the original gang from book 1. Instead, ‘The Dead’ introduces us to a new set of characters, living in a world set one year before the events of ‘The Enemy’. I have to say I was more than a bit disappointed to discover this, especially after investing so much, emotionally, in the original group. And to be honest, I was eager to find out what the heck had happened to them all! However, in order to move forward we sometimes have to go back, so I began reading ‘The Dead’ with a sense of anticipation. Where would this new group go? What would they encounter? And how would their story fit with that of the group from book 1?
When we first meet the new group – made up for the most part by a group of school boys and a rag-tag assortment of kids trying to get to London on a bus – the school boys are trapped in their school by a bunch of sick teachers, all of whom have turned or are turning into zombies. The boys soon realise that their only hope of survival is to escape the school and the village it’s located in. The group is at odds however; some believing it’s safer in the countryside, whilst others think heading to London would make more sense. As a result, the group is initially split up before meeting again after a horrific zombie attack leaves one group with no other option but to retrace their steps.
Once again, Higson doesn’t hold back in ‘The Dead’. It’s a full-on gore fest, describing in graphic detail the putrid zombies, their faces covered in pustules, noses running continuously, eyes red and consumed by a rage that would put The Hulk to shame. These are not the slow-moving, brainless zombies of many a Hollywood movie; these ones can run fast and still have a modicum of intelligence, meaning they’re not to be taken lightly when you encounter one.
There are definitely good and bad aspects to this instalment. As we’re essentially starting from the beginning, much of what’s been before in ‘The Enemy’ is rehashed here, which doesn’t make for particularly interesting reading. After all, we already know what will happen if you’re caught by a zombie, encounter a sick-looking adult or you happen to be over the age of 14. But for this group, none – or very little – is known about these things, so we have to watch as they learn what and what not to do.
The problem with this approach is that it makes the first third of the book very slow going indeed. It takes almost 30 chapters for the group to finally make it to their destination and when they do, they encounter another group of kids who are less than welcoming. It doesn’t take long for everyone to make friends however when they realise there is safety in numbers, but this detracts from the sense of danger and apprehension that could have been developed out of having two groups battling against each other, as well as against the zombies.
What saves ‘The Dead’ from being an almost carbon copy of ‘The Enemy’ however is the story of Ed, Jack and Bam, three members of the schoolboy group who decide for very personal reasons, to embark on a separate journey of their own. Their encounters with the zombies – or ‘sickos’ as they fondly call them – in particular one in a well-known landmark, genuinely make the heart pound and re-establish the fact that these are children, operating in a world that is completely alien to them and without the help of adults. In this setting however, Higson does what many authors fail to; give them the credit they’re so often denied. Yes, they’re young; yes, this is a terrifying world with none of the rules they’re used to; but that doesn’t make them helpless or hopeless. In fact, without the more jaded view of the world seen through the eyes of adults, ‘The Dead’ fills the reader with a strange sense of hope; that perhaps these children CAN and WILL survive, despite their lack of experience or knowledge of the world around them.
As with ‘The Enemy’, Higson isn’t afraid to kill off key characters in ‘The Dead’. Some are more shocking than others, but the message is the same whoever it is; the group realise it could be any one of them, so no death is overlooked or dismissed as unimportant. There is less time spent on petty squabbles and plays for power – as there no doubt would be if these were adults – and more spent on working out strategies, like how to get more food, what to use as weapons and where the safest places are to hide out from the sickos.
The end of ‘The Dead’ brings things nicely full circle, with a small overlap with a member from the original ‘The Enemy’ group. And as much as I didn’t enjoy ‘The Dead’ quite as much, I’m still intrigued to see where Higson will take the series and the children who inhabit it. I have a feeling we’ve not seen the last of the two groups and it will be interesting to see how and when they finally meet.