Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Book Review: Monster Island

Monster Island, by David Wellington

I finished David Wellington's Monster Island the other day -- I've been on something of a zombie novel kick, which is unfortunate because there isn't all that much for me to choose from -- and...hmm. I'm a little torn on this one. On one hand, I genuinely enjoyed reading it -- it's a pretty quick, engaging read, and Wellington tweaks the typical zombie apocalypse formula in some interesting ways, but there are character inconsistencies up the wazoo and you could drive semis through some of the plot holes. I'll probably read the other two books in the series, simply because the lure of zombies is too much for me to resist, but I'm kind of disappointed with how the whole thing turned out.

Also, it drives me bonkers when writers switch between first and third person POV. Unless you're a fucking great writer, it's jarring as all get-out. Bad Wellington. -2 points for you.

Warning! Spoilers Follow!

Monster Island follows a UN weapons inspector named Dekalb as he arrives in New York with a group of gun-toting sixteen-year-old girls, themselves members of a Somalian people's army. Their warlord and leader has AIDS, and with the world in the grip of the zombie epidemic, she has no way of getting the drugs she needs. Dekalb, who was in Somalia when the epidemic broke out, is summarily dispatched to New York to get the drugs needed for treatment. Unfortunately, New York is completely overrun with zombies, and there's a very good chance Dekalb and his team won't make it out alive.

As setups go, it's painfully thin, and that's because the meat (HA!) of the story is really in what happens once they get into the city proper. The first-person segments are from Dekalb's POV, and they alternate with third-person segments from the POV of a person who had the potential to be the most interesting of the whole book: Gary, a medical student who deliberately turned himself into a zombie in order to escape from becoming food or one of the mindless dead.

Reasoning that the lack of oxygen to the brain during the initial death creates the mindless eating machines we all know and love, Gary hooks himself up to a dialysis machine before he infects himself. When he wakes up again, he's undead and sharp as a tack...and very, very hungry.

The idea of the sentient undead is one of the many cool concepts that Wellington toys with in the book. Equally as cool is the idea that the undead share a hive mind of sorts, which a zombie of above-average intelligence can exploit as he sees fit. Gary, struggling with his place among the living and undead both, connected to this vast network of undead energy without entirely realizing the potential of it, quickly emerges as one of the most fascinating and sympathetic characters of the whole book. He needs to eat raw flesh, but the idea is abhorrent to him. Fearing for what life among the undead will do to his sanity and humanity both, Gary desperately wants to help Dekalb's group and be among the living...but he also fears his own dark urges, and worries about what might happen if can't control himself.

I was really looking forward to seeing how Gary dealt with this struggle, because -- in my mind, at least -- it brought a lot of horror subtext to the surface as text. We find zombies horrifying for several reasons, but the two that stand out the most are a) the loss of the individual into mindlessness, and b) the taboo consumption of human flesh as food. But what if you have a creature that retains a human sense of individuality and personality, yet must also consume raw, living flesh in order to survive? By confronting the idea of a sentient zombie, you also end up confronting the idea of what it means to be "human" -- not in a biological sense, but in a philosophical one. Where is the line between man and monster?

Unfortunately, Wellington doesn't delve into that at ALL, and the character that started off so promising goes the lame, melodramatic route and embraces his inner monster so quickly and fully that he ends up feeling nothing but disgust for the people he'd been so desperate to help not two chapters before. *sigh* And as annoyingly predictable as this development was, I was disappointed mostly because everything started off so well with Gary's character arc. He goes from "please, I can help you!" to "FUCK YOU, DELICIOUS HUMANS!" so fast that it's like he's two different characters entirely. Lame. If I'm going to be given a descent into monstrosity, I at least want it to feel natural. This was just...contrived.

And then there was this whole business with super-strong zombie mummies and whatnot. Really, the middle portion of the book kind of sucked. The first third or so was all awesome setup and worldbuilding and character development, and the final third had some pretty decent human v. zombie action, but that middle bit? Hoooo boy. Didn't work for me at all. I still have no idea what the hell was going on with the all-powerful Celtic bog mummy (...I know. Don't think about it too hard), but I was definitely glad when Wellington finally moved into the third act and left that nonsense behind.

Final verdict? Decent fun and a fast read, with a few intriguing twists on the genre that make it worth a look if you're a hardcore zombie fan. On the downside, the goofy-ass plot makes no sense and the characterization is all over the place, and the author totally squanders the best characters on lame plot contrivances and predictability.


So@24 said...

I know this has nothing to do with your book, but I wanted to let you know that...

I bought Bully for the Wii last night and started playing. I'm hooked! Weren't you a huge fan?

janegodzilla said...

YES! I STILL AM! It's one of my favorite games EVER.

Here's a super-fun trick: once you get a few bags of marbles, spread a bunch of them in front of the door of the boy's dorm, pull the fire alarm, and then hide in a trash can to watch the hilarity that ensues. If the guys see you, they'll try to beat you up, but if you hide they start wailing on each other instead, and it's hilarious.

So@24 said...

It's all I've been thinking about all day!

Let me know if there are some other tricks I should know...

e.g. Should I always be a goody-goody or is it okay to be a dick? How important is it to make out with girls? Can I make out with dudes?