Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

The First Days will be released on July 5, 2011

So I joined Goodreads about a month ago and entered a bunch of contests.  Much to my surprise, I actually won a giveaway and received an ARC of Rhiannon Frater's The First Days from the publisher, Tor. The First Days originally began as a short story Frater published online.  The response was quite favorable and soon she began expanding the story, posting it online, chapter by chapter.  Because of the story’s popularity, Frater attempted to find a publisher for her story and when none materialized, she self published it in 2008.  It snowballed from there and in 2010 she received an offer from Tor to reissue the book as well as its two sequels

From the first page, the reader is plunged into a terrifying but riveting nightmare.  We meet battered wife and mother of two, Jenni, as she stands on her front porch, watching in stupefied horror as her youngest child squeezes his little baby fingers under the gap of the closed door, attempting to reach his mother.  The three year old (thanks to his no-goodnik father), is one of the newly dead, a zombie, and very, very hungry.   Waking up to find your zombie husband eating your child’s entrails is enough to freak the ever lovin’ shit out of anyone.  When said baby reanimates as a zombie and attempts to eat you, well it’s no wonder Jenni is near catatonic with shock. Fortunately for Jenni, zombies don’t know how to open doors.  
Unfortunately, they can smash windows and are not deterred by broken glass if it means chowing down on living flesh.  As her husband and older son break through the front window, Jenni is rescued by a woman with a shotgun and a pickup truck and together, the two flee the overrun suburb in search of safety.  The woman is Katie and together they head out into Texas hill country, stopping to rescue Jenni’s teenage stepson, who is off on a camping trip.  From there the trio continue on in a desperate attempt to find refuge from the zombie horde.  They find a semblance of safety in a small, isolated town with a group of fellow survivors who have had the presence of mind to fortify and secure the area from the encroaching throng of walking dead.  (Actually, these zombies are the fast moving kind so I guess they are more of the running dead.)  It’s not known what precipitated this world wide catastrophe but what is known is that things are only going to get worse.

The First Days is a thrilling story with lots of fights, killings and the occasional smashing of zombies.  It’s very graphic, very violent and the action scenes shoot along at a breakneck pace.  Frater does not shy away from depicting the story in all its gory detail, never forgetting a healthy dose of black humor to keep things from sinking into bleak despair. This is a hair-raising story that is also fun. When it comes to the zombies, Frater leaves no group out.  There are old zombies, baby zombies, black, white and brown zombies, zombie families, WASP zombies, white trash zombies and everything in between.   No one is excluded from the threat.

The problem I had with the book has to do with the execution of the characterization.  Initially, the characters are sketched out nicely – Katie is a successful yuppie lawyer in a loving, childfree marriage and Jenni is a young homemaker, mother of two, stepmother to one and wife of an abusive dickweed - but once Frater begins to color in these lines, the character development goes askew.  Instead of showing us how characters are feeling, we get emotional info dumps that come across as hackneyed and implausible.  Moments after meeting, there is this exchange between Katie and town resident/hero Travis:

“Jenni lost everyone but her stepson.  I lost…” She faltered.
Travis’s eyes were so warm, so compassionate.  “You lost your husband.”
Katie hesitated.  Then, knowing that something was fast developing between her and Travis – some kind of bond… It was best to be honest.

This was moments after they had met.  Moments after Katie had escaped yet another zombie attack.   Yet, she’s able to switch gears from kill-or-be-killed and focus on the special bond developing between her and some dude she’s just met.  It’s a clunky moment that doesn’t ring emotionally true. That instant bond with Travis may be there but I find it hard to buy that she is even thinking about it, considering what directly proceeded this scene.  It’s more likely that she is still coming down from the fight-or-flight, Holy Shit!-We-Were-Almost-Eaten-By-Zombies rush of adrenaline.

Later in the story we learn that Katie, who up to this point has been described as a lesbian, is actually bisexual. Being in a ten year, monogamous marriage with another woman led people to assume she was a lesbian, something she did not bother to correct as folks tend to get befuddled by bisexuality.  But now, she’s tired of pretending to be something she’s not just to make others comfortable.  The first person she shares this epiphany with is 15 year-old Jason, Jenni’s stepson.  This seemed like a weirdly intimate thing for an adult to confide to a teenager, especially one she hasn’t known for very long. Then, a short while later, she asks him not to reveal this info to anyone else.  (So much for not pretending.)  The whole sequence is executed awkwardly; its only point seems to be to let the reader know that, yes, there's a chance Katie and Travis could hook up. 
Especially problematic is Jenni, who, when not killing zombies, spends an awful lot of time thinking about getting laid.  Which could work if it was the-world-is-dying-and-I-need-to-reaffirm-life kind of thing.  Instead it’s more like, Hey-he’s-cute-I-wonder-if-he-likes-me. Hair flip.  Hair flip.  Kill zombie.  Hair flip.

Too be honest, Jenni, as written, is extremely annoying.  Her behavior is described alternately as petulant, pouty, and sulky; she giggles an awful lot and when not in danger, thinks with her vagina.  Although, it’s nice to see two females team up in what is essentially a buddy story, (generally a male dominated genre, IME), Jenni’s needy behavior unbalances that dynamic and comes across as a little too stalker-ish for my tastes.  

And then there is hunky hero Travis.  Sensitive, capable, commanding Travis.  More a collection of ideals than a three dimensional character, he’s a little too good to be true.  His only flaw is his anti-gun stance, way impractical during a zombie apocalypse and, ultimately, implausible, despite Frater’s attempt to explain it. Travis’ parents were from England and he was raised in an anti-gun home.  (Apparently, the English hate guns even more than zombies.)  According to Travis, killing zombies with a shovel = good; using a gun = bad.  This seems like a silly distinction for him to make and one that had me rolling my eyes.  Fortunately for everyone, Travis gives in on the guns.

It was hard for me to grade this book.  Despite my numerous issues with the characterization, I was still engaged by the story.  As I said earlier, it’s really fun and often had me on the edge of my seat with it's ramped up scenes of zombie carnage. But the cool down scenes were killer and not in the good way.  I'm a character driven reader and The First Days failed to satisfy on that level.  That being the case, I would grade the story of The First Days as a B+ but the character development gets a D+, which averages out to a C+.  
Grade: C+

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