The Return Man
by V. M. ZitoWith zombie fiction, the dumber the shambling undead are, the smarter everything else in the story ought to be to make up for it. In The Return Man V. M. Zito's zombies are slow yet relentless flesh eaters whose only concern seems to be their next meal. The Resurrection infection has turned them into black-blooded monsters that never stop and can only be killed by a shot to the head. On the Einstein to jellyfish scale, they're right next to the brainless medusoids.
America has been divided in two. The Safe States to the east are infection free but run by an increasingly totalitarian regime. But the infected west is where Marco lives, amongst the undead in the Evacuated States. He has stayed there to bury the dead. He takes on contracts from grieving relatives to put down specific zombies, in order to put them out of their misery. He gets paid well for this service, but in the west money has little meaning when there's nothing to spend it on and there are no police to stop him taking what he wants. However he's not really in the zombie-killing game to get rich.
Marco's wife Danielle disappeared during the outbreak, and he lives in both hope and fear of finding her. He sees what he does as euthanasia, but even so he has doubts about whether what he's doing is right. Is it a mercy for the infected, or merely for the living? Although these zombies are fairly brain dead they have a tendency to return to places they had an emotional attachment to whilst they were alive. But although Marco has looked for Danielle in most of their old haunts she continues to elude him.
Then Marco is strong-armed by Owen Osbourne, a Safe States Homeland Security thug, into taking on a new hit on a very special zombie. Roger Ballard is a scientist Marco used to know, although they fell out a long time ago. Ballard was lost during an outbreak and riot at a high security prison. It's a dangerous assignment which goes deep into the heart of infected territory. Marco is unlikely to make it out alive without help. But instead of the military backup team he was expecting he gets Kheng Wu, a lone Chinese soldier. Wu is clearly hiding something. But as Marco tries to puzzle him out, Wu rescues him from one difficult situation after another. A bond of trust begins to form between the two men. Wu's outlook and his respect for the dead is quite a contrast to Marco's more secular approach, but they have to put aside their differences in order to survive on the road. The question is whether their growing trust will survive the truth about Wu's real objective.
Whilst all this is going on there are other factions in pursuit of Roger Ballard. Between them and the hordes of slavering zombies, the bad guy Osbourne, and Wu's machinations, the pace is unyielding. There's a lot of high-octane action, perhaps even too much since some of the hack and slash is very gory. Zombie stories can easily descend into tales of survivalist butchery that focus on the blood without much else going on, but what makes The Return Man stand out is how thoughtful it is. At the start there's a hint that the story will be a metaphor for the moral conflict of euthanasia, but the author doesn't stop there. The story deals with totalitarianism, denial, grief and letting go, respect for the dead, and political absolutism, and it tackles these themes with intelligence and sensitivity. I also liked the technical way the cause of the zombie outbreak is explained. The Resurrection is inevitably a bit unbelievable because the infected don't seem to die of exposure, starvation or normal disease like humans would, but at least there is a lot of consistency in the way they react, how the infection is transmitted, and the real diseases that form the scientific basis for their condition. So this is a smart, exciting novel that more than amply compensates for the brain-dead state of its main antagonists.
12th December 2012
Review © Ros Jackson