So if you’re just tuning in, welcome! This is the second in a multi-part series highlighting Mira Grant’s excellent political thriller/zombie series, Newsflesh. If you’ve read the series and want to read my thoughts on the first book, Feed, you may do so here. If you are unfamiliar with the novels, I insist that you please stop reading this, find copies of Feed and Deadline, and start reading! Because in October? Book three, Blackout, will be featured here on Speculative Chic, AND a new volume set in the same universe (Feedback) will be published! You still have plenty of time to catch up.
It’s pretty safe to say that I really like this series. It’s got everything you might ask of a book of its nature and then some. You say that you are bored with zombies? I assure you that this book handles the zombie aspect very well indeed and is unlike any other piece of zombie-infested fiction that I’ve ever read. Grant knows her science. She also has a firm grasp on human nature. These two things combine to make a truly compelling piece of fiction. I will also say this: if you have NOT read the first novel, I would suggest that you may not necessarily HAVE TO, but you SHOULD. I will get into this slightly in the body of the review itself.
Here we go!
Written by: Mira Grant
Genre: Science fiction
Pages: 624 (Paperback/Kindle)
Series: Book Two of Newsflesh
Why I Chose It: The new novel, Feedback will be released later this fall. I wanted to re-familiarize myself with the universe and the circumstances that this novel will be set in.
Shaun Mason is a man without a mission. Not even running the news organization he built with his sister has the same urgency as it used to. Playing with dead things just doesn’t seem as fun when you’ve lost as much as he has.
But when a CDC researcher fakes her own death and appears on his doorstep with a ravenous pack of zombies in tow, Shaun has a newfound interest in life. Because she brings news-he may have put down the monster who attacked them, but the conspiracy is far from dead.
Now, Shaun hits the road to find what truth can be found at the end of a shotgun.
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. REPEAT, SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED.
To start with, hats off to Grant for creating a second book in a series that one could theoretically dive into without necessarily reading the first volume. It can’t stand alone, exactly, but it comes close. With Feed, we had a complete story. Start to finish, the entire plot was there. With Deadline, however, we don’t exactly get an ending. It’s more of a semicolon at the end than a period. By this point, Grant likely knew that she was going to have the opportunity to continue in this universe after this volume and decided to structure the second book with that in mind. This isn’t a criticism, per se, more of an observation. As far as Deadline almost standing alone, consider that we have an almost entirely new cast, in an entirely new setting. The only recurring characters (save Shaun) were largely names on pages in Deadline. The plot relates to events from book one, but doesn’t depend on it 100%. This is essentially book one of a duology. If you didn’t read Feed, you find out the important bits from this book. Grant does a fine job if weaving “here’s what happened last week” into the story without going too info-dumpy on the reader. That particular skill is a fine line to walk. Grant does so with grace.
As with my previous review, I will not be doing a full recap of the plot. I will also assume that if you’re here beyond the spoiler warning that you’ve also read the book or don’t mind being spoiled. Onward!
Everything’s a Horror Movie
People laugh at me because I watch a lot of horror movies, but horror movies are educational, if you know how to pay attention to them. They tell you about societal trends — about the things that people are afraid of. In the ones before the Rising, they were afraid of actual things. The new ones…they’re just afraid of not being afraid. (page 233, Kindle edition)
Let’s unpack that. Maggie, head of the Fictional division of After the End Times, lives in her own little wonderland deep in the California countryside. She is also the darling daughter of the extremely wealthy Garcia family, who have decided to indulge their only heir in any way that she wishes. Her wish? To inherit the ancestral farmhouse and live in near solitude while running an informal teacup bulldog rescue (and how adorable is that last phrase?). Despite the remote home that she has built for herself, Maggie loves having her people around. She regularly hosts grindhouse film festivals that last for days at a time. Her friends descend upon the house, eat tons of popcorn and watch hours and hours of bad old horror movies. This makes Maggie uniquely educated on the subject of fear. Despite living alone on the outskirts of a small town, Maggie herself is surrounded by a team of “security ninjas” and the most state-of-the-art security system that money can buy. Yet even Maggie is afraid. Consider her living situation: an old farmhouse, yes. Potentially very dangerous. BUT: it’s in the middle of nowhere. Surely a good fence with a good blood testing unit should be sufficient enough to protect Maggie and her friends from the possibility of the infected. Yet that’s not good enough. We’re told that Maggie’s security system includes multiple gates, a deliberately slow and curve driveway, multiple checkpoints for blood tests and the aforementioned security staff. This almost looks like security theater.
Consider human nature for a moment. Everyone knows somebody who’s never happy unless they’re unhappy, or in the midst of drama, or making themselves stressed. Maybe you’re that person. Humanity still retains some of the old instinctual behavior that kept us alive when there were fewer modern conveniences and many more things that wished to eat us. Fear and stress are a normal part of our old monkey brains. When there’s nothing to fear? Or anything to stress about? The monkey brain becomes agitated and invents things to be upset about. It’s already happening. More and more individuals are on antidepressants than ever before. The same holds true for individuals with an anxiety disorder. The last link points out a statistic that suggests that 28% of adults will develop an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. We no longer have to fight with giant animals to live. We by and large no longer have to scavenge for food. We have less and less to fear, yet our anxiety and depression levels are rising. Yes, you could argue that we have more to worry about than our basic needs, but the point stands: the brain craves that fear. Fear is a great motivator to improve, move ahead, work hard.
Shaun and George
Poor sad, haunted Shaun. If you remember him from Feed, you remember a fun-loving, brave, charming Irwin who was never afraid to jump into the middle of the hottest mess around. He’d walk away with a smile and down a hot cup of coffee while telling you the gory details. Here, Shaun is a broken, rather bitter shell of his former self. We learn that he has given over head of the Irwin division to Becks and that he takes great pains to isolate himself. He has broken ties with his parents. He lives in an apartment that is better described as an arsenal that happens to contain a shower and a bed. His only real source of companionship is…himself. Or George’s ghost, if you wish to believe in such things. Yes, George is alive and well in the depths of Shaun’s mind. While not physically appearing, she remains an active participant in Shaun’s daily life. He speaks to her, sometimes out loud. Shaun has started drinking Coke, which he despises, simply because it was George’s favorite caffeine vehicle of choice. On several occasions George even appears to physically manifest to help Shaun with a particularly difficult moment.
Becks was only a name on a page in Feed. She is mentioned in passing as one of the three Newsies that was chosen to report on an outbreak while Buffy was filling in for George and Shaun. In Deadline, we meet Becks for real. She is now the head Irwin on the team and with good reason. We are told that she is smart and brave. We see that she has a big, loving heart as well. The apartment building that houses After the End Times has other residents. One of them is an elderly, hard of hearing woman named Mrs. Hagar. Becks, we learn, bakes cookies for Mrs. Hagar out of simple kindness. Throughout the course of the volume, we see Becks backing up her friends unquestioningly and enthusiastically. When the presumed-dead Dr. Kelly Connolly arrives and joins the party, Becks is immediately suspicious of the woman and never fails to make it clear that she’d kill Kelly to protect the others if it came down to it.
Further proof that Becks is loyal? After she and Shaun sleep together, Shaun mumbles “Goodnight, George” before drifting off. Becks is upset the next day but she forgives Shaun, and they are somehow able to continue working together almost as if nothing had happened.
The Rest of the Gang
Can we talk about how awesome the rest of the supporting cast is here? We have fantastic secondary characters introduced here. From poor, doomed Dave to the turned-up-to-eleven mad scientist Dr. Abbey, there are no duds here at all. Maggie, who had a brief appearance in Feed is more fully fleshed out in this volume. Maggie is one of my favorite characters. She’s the almost fairy godmother-esque head of the Fictional department who offers sanctuary to the Oakland group after the city is destroyed. Another standout is Alaric. Shaun, in a fit of anger, broke Alaric’s nose at some unspecified point in the past. Despite this, Alaric stayed on to work and live near his volatile friend and boss. Dave, the martyred Irwin who stayed behind to let the rest of the team get safely away during the hideous Oakland outbreak, has also been the subject of Shaun’s punches at some point. Everybody realizes that Shaun is not well. They all stayed anyway.
Dr. Shannon Abbey gets her own section beyond the rest because she’s not really a part of the team. Dr. Abbey is a semi-mad scientist who’s been operating outside of CDC regulations for years. We learn that she is driven to this after her husband died in an outbreak that could have been easily contained. She goes about her days experimenting with Kellis-Amberlee in various methods. Her companion is a huge black dog, Joe, who has been infected with the virus multiple times. He has been given the virus and has recovered from it each time due to something known as a reservoir condition. It is from Dr. Abbey that we learn the heartbreaking, infuriating news: George might have recovered in Feed. George suffered from a reservoir condition that left her eyes home to live-state Kellis-Amberlee. The virus never moved out of her eyes prior to her infection and subsequent amplification. Dr. Abbey confirms that reservoir conditions are the body’s attempt to deal with the virus and backs up her claims with evidence gleaned from her experimentation on Joe.
So we’ve learned about reservoir conditions and how the immune system is developing its own defense to Kellis-Amberlee. Wonderful, right? Wrong. The folks in charge (CDC, the government) apparently don’t WANT any living thing to develop its own immunity to the virus. How then would they be able to successfully control the population as they are now? What good would it do to allow mammals to just get over the virus? Dial back to our reality for a little while as I lay this out a different way: What benefit would the government see if the human body began to spontaneously get over diseases such as cancer, diabetes, MS or even the flu? If there’s no need for big, expensive medical care, then the pharmaceutical industry would lose billions.
We can’t have that now, can we?
Moving on. I’m going to be honest, I was a little disappointed by the showdown with Dr. Wynne at the CDC. Kelly’s sadness at discovering that her mentor was actually evil was sorrowful to read. It’s never pleasant to see somebody’s mentor betray them before their very eyes. That said, Dr. Wynne grandstanding and monologuing at Shaun and Becks? It wasn’t that different from Governor Tate’s similar scene in Feed. It’s almost a repeat. He was rather flat when you got down to the nitty-gritty. I would have preferred a more layered villain than the one we actually got. Of course, we know that he isn’t actually the Big Bad Evil of the series. He dies. He’s no longer left to trouble our heroes by the time the curtain draws on the end of this particular volume. It is clearer and clearer that the CDC and thus the government themselves are the real evils to be dealt with.
The Clone In The Lab
Familiar with Chekov’s Gun? Anton Chekov said:
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
See this article for more, or simply search for the phrase “Chekov’s Gun.” Grant uses this trope in a roundabout way. Very, very early on in Deadline, we learn that the CDC has been performing cloning for quite a while. This is, after all, how Dr. Connolly “escapes” the Memphis lab after all of her former teammates are dead. So, if we are told in the beginning that cloning happens all of the time within CDC jurisdiction, and that the CDC kept George’s body for quite a while longer than expected before handing over her ashes to Shaun, how surprised was anybody, really, when “Georgia” wakes up in a lab at the end of the novel? George was definitely dead at the end of Feed. One doesn’t just survive the sort of shots that Shaun was forced to take upon his sister’s amplification. So if we know that George is most certainly dead, what else could the George at the end of Deadline by BUT a clone?
I did enjoy revisiting this book, but not as much as I did Feed. I’m not fond of cliffhangers as a rule. I actually find them beyond annoying, and here, we’re left with a cliffhanger of enormous proportion. I was able to enjoy this reading experience, certainly, but I didn’t read through it as urgently as I did Feed. Perhaps if the story had been slightly more self-contained, it may have been more enjoyable. I think that the issue for me is that Grant shines the brightest in her characters and their interactions. There was so much ACTION in this volume (which was well done, to be sure) and SUSPENSE that the character interactions were, by nature, limited and terse. It suits the story for what it is, but didn’t leave me quite as engaged as I would have liked. Maybe I just don’t enjoy Shaun as a narrator as much as I did George? The next volume, Blackout, is told via split narrative. Let’s see how that goes!