I’ve been writing so much lately that I haven’t had nearly as much time for reading as I usually do. That’s one of the reasons I treasure the subways in NYC so much — if I were a driver, I wouldn’t get any reading done. As it is, subway reading time isn’t much, but it adds up. And since I’ve been traveling too — six hours sitting on the tarmac in Minneapolis on the way back from Wiscon allowed me to read the second book here (for which I’m not exactly grateful, just looking at the positives) — I’ve actually got two good books to recommend.
First up is Mira Grant’s Feed, first book of the “Newsflesh” series. I first heard about this through John Scalzi’s Big Idea, and shamelessly mooched it from the Orbit offices when I dropped by to deliver a copyedit. Started reading it on the subway ride home, and was hooked by Brooklyn. It’s the best book I’ve read recently which tackles the zombie apocalypse and then goes, “Then what?”
In this case, what happened was the utter transformation of society. Because in Grant’s world, every human being is infected with the virus that causes zombiefication upon death, the threat of a new outbreak is constant — every time someone has a heart attack or a bad car accident, their bodies have to be dealt with very quickly, or else. Sometimes they spontaneously “amplify” even before death, in response to stress or an injury, just like with any other virus. Grant’s done her science research on this one — epidemiology, sociology — but at its core, this is a story about the news. Yeah, the news. See, in this world, during the zombie apocalypse, the mainstream media proved it couldn’t be trusted. Reports from the major networks downplayed the severity of the problem, ridiculed evidence of flesh-eating monsters, and so forth — so the only safe, accurate information came from bloggers, who risked their lives to help the world survive. Years later, bloggers are the mainstream media, yet they retain their own quirky, quintessentially independent culture. The story follows intrepid newsie Georgia and her brother Shaun as they get the scoop of a lifetime: a chance to follow the presidential campaign of a young up-and-coming senator. The senator’s not that interesting, frankly, but the fact that someone’s trying to assassinate him with zombies is. So Georgia and her team must literally risk life and unlife to uncover the source of the threat.
This is a thriller. The fact that it takes place during the zombie apocalypse is irrelevant; it could be taking place during an outbreak of weaponized ebola. (Except ebola victims don’t try to eat you.) I count it as science fiction, though, because Grant deals realistically with the evolution of society; the worldbuilding here is fascinating in and of itself. And the characters kept me hooked all the way through, particularly as Grant pulls no punches in showing just how ugly a conspiracy in high places can get. There are some obvious digs at Bush-era politics and the information privacy wars. I can’t wait for the next book.
Next up is Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. I’ve been a fan of Nnedi’s for awhile now; I love her seminal children’s fantasy Zahrah the Windseeker. This novel, however, is adult and science fantasy. Set in a future of unknown distance after an ecological apocalypse — most of the world has become a desert; people use handmade computers and portable water-condensers to survive — the story takes place in an unnamed land beset by conflict. The Nuru, following the dictates of “the Great Book”, have taken it upon themselves to destroy the Okeke — a culture whose people they already enslave and oppress. As part of this genocidal campaign, they systematically rape Okeke women, deliberately trying to create mixed-race babies.
Sound familiar? It should. It isn’t clear until the end of the story which nation this is — could’ve been one of any number from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia, since the pattern of rape as a weapon of war is by no means exclusive to any one locale. That said, it’s pretty clear that this is set in some nation in Africa, and the parallels with Sudan are obvious. Especially as the novel’s protagonist Onyesonwu — a child of rape — grows up. Although she lives far from the conflict, her mother having fled to the more peaceful eastern region after the attack, Onyesonwu lives under the war’s shadow constantly, not the least because the is a living warning to the Okeke of the horrors to come. They treat her badly as a result — though she still makes friends, and finds allies, despite the prejudice. As Onyesonwu learns the history behind this war, she discovers that she is the focus of a prophecy that may end it. That is, of course, assuming she can survive the attempts of a powerful sorcerer — her own evil biological father — to kill her, and prevent the prophecy from coming true.
There’s a lot of grim, painful stuff in this book: it starts with an horrific gang rape scene (be forewarned), then progresses through violence, torture, prejudice, bullying, female genital cutting, colorism, child soldiering, and more. Yet these are all treated in a nuanced fashion that I’ve rarely seen in fiction or even nonfiction — there’s far more to this story than just “war is bad”. Onyesonwu finds love, and sets forth with her own personal gang of Scoobies to face her father and her fate, and there’s a lot of wonder and laughter on this journey. Some elements of mythic beauty, too: the magical house of the elders, for example, and I found myself utterly fascinated by the chapters in which the gang encounters the Red People, a group of nomads who travel amid their own personal sandstorm. The magic system is complex and fascinating; I kinda want to put together an RPG campaign based on it. And not only is Onyesonwu herself a kickass character — I’d pit her against any dozen urban fantasy “chick with a tattoo and a gun” protagonists — but her whole crew of girlfriends (and Mwita, her boyfriend/lover) are pretty hardcore too.
This is a horrifying, inspiring, painful, joyous book.
Heck, they’re both equally good, though for very different reasons. Chewy, thinky, fun. Go read ‘em!
ETA: But do a better job than I did of getting the names right. “Onyesonwu” is correct, not my transliterated “Onyesunwo”. D’oh.