A not really a zombie story (TAKE 2) - The Boy on the Bridge
"The Boy on the Bridge" is M.R. Carey's followup to the bestselling "The Girl With All the Gifts". Set in the same post apocalyptic world, it features a different cast of characters, but a lot of the same challenges. In this world, a fungus has infected the population, turning them into the fungal equivalent of zombies. They chase you down, bite you and try and eat you. Get bitten, and you join their mushroomy ranks. The world is in shambles, most governments have collapsed, and people do questionable things to survive.
This is a review of the themes present, and is meant to be as spoiler free as possible.
"The Girl With all the Gifts" set the stage for a different sort of zombie story. Less about gore and violence, it takes the approach of looking more deeply into how people treat one another, and how society tries to adapt and survive in the worst of circumstances. It contrasts characters by giving them opposing points of view on things like freedom and what it means to be human, and gives them a journey where they have to work together to both survive and grow.
Here's the thing though: "The Boy on the Bridge" is essentially the same story. It starts more abruptly and features a larger cast of characters, but by and large the theme is the same, and the parallels you draw between the stories are just a little too similar. Both stories feature gruff military men willing to do anything to survive, an empathic woman that supports the main character with a grating attitude of self-righteousness, and features a main character that's younger than the others yet incredibly smart, and is largely disliked by their traveling companions.
The events in the stories differ, but the overarching theme is way too similar to ignore. In and of itself, this isn't always a bad thing, but I kept running into the issue that I really felt that it had been done better in the first book. In "The Girl With All the Gifts", the Hungries (zombies) are an ever present threat to be cautious and aware of. The situations are filled with palpable dread as the characters need to survive in their midst. In this story however, we get reminded that the Hungries are a threat, but it's never really shown in the narrative. It feels largely washed away in favour of petty squabbling and plot machinations that don't lead much of anywhere. Where as the first book felt like a fresh take on a zombie story, this feels like a story where zombies are referenced but don't get the screen time to be impactful.
The largest problem this story has though, is that the characters just aren't likable. While the cast is larger, fully half of them get so little character treatment that the literally are just names on a page. We never learn about them, and we are never given a reason to care when bad things start to happen to them. Then, with the characters that do get developed, they end up being incredibly one dimensional and ultimately really hard to like. Whereas the protagonist in "The Girl With All the Gifts" was aspirational and easy to cheer on, the one in this book is written clumsily and without heart. The author was trying to write him as a sort of 'autistic savant', but missed the mark. Instead of feeling his struggle with interpersonal relationships, he comes off as creepy, largely because we see him too often through the eyes of the other characters who view him as such, and the one character that supports him is so preachy about it that it becomes grating.
All in all, the book suffers for it. The story is too familiar, but without the charm of the first. The characters aren't as interesting or identifiable as the first. The sense of dread and despair is muted, and the primary conflict shifts from a dangerous world to endless bickering. It's not bad, it's just... meh. Instead of something shrouded in mystery and dread, we get plunged into a puddle of blandness, which it is never able to shake off. A zombie story that's light on the zombies can absolutely be done. This just isn't the way to do it.