**Very Mild Spoilers for The Boy on the Bridge. Full discloser, I was given an advance copy of the novel by M.R. Carey’s publicist.**
In a horror subgenre that often feels like it’s overflowing with the same old stories, M.R. Carey has a knack for the original and inventive.
With his 2014 novel The Girl with All the Gifts, he explored how what’s left of humanity persists 20 years after a cataclysmic pathogen transforms the majority of the population into mindless, vicious zombies known as “hungries.” It was a novel heavy on scientific research and crafted tension, delivering a nightmarish and realistic vision of how an actual zombie pathogen might behave, how the world would evolve, and how fearful and selfish human beings would struggle in the aftermath. I found it a fascinating approach to the zombie apocalypse, a survival tale with all the expected strained group dynamics coupled with fascinating science and difficult ethical questions.
Continuing his mission of smart, well-researched, compelling zombie novels, Carey has just published his latest novel The Boy on the Bridge with Orbit. And let me tell you, if you liked The Girl with All the Gifts, you’ll really like The Boy on the Bridge.
Carey continues his exploration of the world post-Breakdown, bringing in new characters, new foibles, and offering the same unflinching and straightforward conflicts between science and ethics, between rationality and emotions. He also offers more background on the history of humanity’s plight post-Breakdown, clarifying lingering questions from The Girl with All the Gifts.
Set ten years before the events of The Girl with All the Gifts, The Boy on the Bridge follows the crew of the Rosalind Franklin, the state-of-the-art mobile laboratory and armed tank created for a team of scientists to venture out among the hungries. Six scientists and six soldiers are sent on forth from Beacon, the last major stronghold of civilization in Britain. Their mission? Follow in the steps of the seemingly ill-fated expedition Charles Darwin, collect the specimen caches left by the first team., and find a cure, or even a clue, in the fight against the hungries and the deadline ophiocordyceps unilateralis pathogen.
Of course, thing don’t go as planned. As if the hungry-infested wilderness isn’t perilous enough, tensions between the science team and their military escort, personal choices, old and deep-seated squabbles, and political interference from Beacon threaten the mission and the crew at every turn. All the while, a new, earth-shattering discovery lurks in the bushes, tracking the Rosalind Franklin and her crew wherever they go.
As I mentioned, Carey has an amazing talent for worldbuilding. As in The Girl with All the Gifts, The Boy on the Bridge depicts a highly engaging story. I found it effortless to pick up this novel and slip right back into the fictional world Carey created. Readers who read The Girl with All the Gifts will easily find themselves wrapped up in the characters and thrust back into the action.
The details are wonderfully rendered. The science is on point. (Holy crap, I’d love to see the binders that Carey no doubt took months to compile in order to effectively and convincingly create the scientific theories of this new world.) The descriptions of Beacon and the way human society has adapted are visceral and heartbreaking. Fruit is “hard currency,” having a book will get you beaten up and your book stolen, and everyone is on edge. Yet, the desperation only serves to further isolate people. All of this makes the pop culture references even more staggering, reminding the reader of the world that’s been lost. Who would ever think that a Mario key chain would be such a powerful and meaningful object? Who would ever think that the voice box of an old toy would be pivotal? It sounds silly, and maybe it is, but human beings can and do find meaning in the smallest of objects. It would be even more important in a post-zombie apocalypse.
Such bleakness demands a cast of complicated characters, and Carey rises to the occasion by creating vivid, multi-dimensional characters. There’s the yellow-bellied, opportunistic leader of the science team and the headstrong yet brilliant doctor with an explosive secret. There’s the grizzled military commander with a haunting past and a hot-headed lieutenant who resents any assertions of authority, especially from his commander. And of course, there’s the young boy with a reckless but indispensable genius. All of them crammed together in the Rosalind Franklin and beset by hungries makes for gripping conflict. For the most part, the group dynamics felt real and organic, with only a stray moment here and there that felt forced.
Carey makes each character compelling, even if they aren’t very likable. He brings strong-willed characters to life along with their flaws and strengths. As in The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey shifts his point of view between major characters, devoting whole chapters to the experiences of certain characters. For the most part, I enjoyed this tactic, particularly when the chapters focused on Stephen, the young savant who may be autistic or just so severely traumatized by the Breakdown that normal human interactions are torture for him. He is fascinating and his chapters are some of the most interesting and well-written. It’s hard for an author to create distinct voices, but Carey once again does a really good job.
Additionally, it’s a rare talent that can write in a way that enables me to clearly visualize what the action and yet avoid the pitfalls of giving a mechanical blow-by-blow. If anything, I found this book more captivating than The Girl with All the Gifts (and I really liked that book). Basically, like The Girl with All the Gifts, The Boy on the Bridge is an engrossing and thoughtful portrayal of a nightmare world.
However, the novel is not without its weak spots. Some of the prose is flowery and forced. Further, there are scenes that could clearly have benefitted from someone editing the prose back to Carey’s more clear and concise writing. The horror in some scenes is striking, delivered in streamlined prose, like the scene where Stephen first encounters a group of hungry children. In others, superfluous details and weirdly biblical references overwhelmed and dulled the action. Frustratingly, Carey makes a bad habit of writing strong descriptive passages but then capping it with a metaphor so overt he might as well have winked at his reader. It was disruptive. There’s a reason why “Show, don’t tell” is the Number 1 rule of creative writing.
It seemed like Carey was trying too hard in places to sound “literary.” He doesn’t need to do that, especially since he’s already skilled at creating and delivering a solid story.
Which leads me to the most frustrating thing about The Boy on the Bridge. there is a pretty huge event that happens early in the book (but I won’t spoil it). This development has the potential to completely derail the mission of the Rosie and her crew, not to mention endangering the lives of the crew (or at least making things extremely difficult). The fact that a particular character would choose to move forward with a certain choice seemed nonsensical, not because I disagree with that character’s choice, but because Carey left it unexplained.
Seriously, Carey never properly delves into the character’s choice, a choice that reverberates throughout the story. In a novel chock-full of amazing characterization and internal monologues and carefully woven context, this lack of development is a glaring omission. I don’t pretend to know what Carey’s motivations were behind this storytelling choice, but it distracted me throughout the narrative. Worse still, it came off as a contrived plot point engineered solely to raise the stakes. And I can forgive a less-than-organic raising of the stakes! But only if the author effectively cultivates it.
Over-used trope and convenient plot development aside, I really enjoyed The Boy on the Bridge. Carey has made a name for himself with his smart vivid zombie stories, combining real horror elements with awesome action set-pieces and thorough scientific research. As with The Girl with All the Gifts, we need more novels like The Boy on the Bridge–intelligent, enthralling, and deeply human.