This review contains spoilers for the first two books in the NEWSFLESH trilogy, Feed and Deadline.
Mira Grant’s Blackout (2012) ends almost exactly where Deadline (2011) ended. Georgia — George — Mason has awakened to find that she has made a miraculous recovery from being shot in the brainstem, and without retinal Kellis-Amberlee (the virus that causes people to become zombies, named for the discoverer of a cure for the common cold and the discoverer of a cure for cancer, which combined with obviously horrible results; and a reservoir condition like retinal Kellis-Amberlee is one in which the virus is resident in a single organ, but the individual never amplifies to the full-blown disease). Despite the fact that she can remember everything, up to and including the moment she was shot by her brother, just before she became a zombie herself, she has concluded that there is only one possible explanation for her current condition: she is a clone. And it becomes obvious in the minutes immediately following this realization that she is a clone in the very close custody of the Centers for Disease Control. We know something George doesn’t — that the CDC is very much the bad guy, something Shaun and the rest of their internet news site learned in Deadline — and so are more nervous for George’s continued good health and eventual freedom than she is. But George is no dummy, and it doesn’t take her long to figure out that she has been grown for the purpose of controlling her brother, a powerful journalist who must have information the CDC doesn’t want made public.
In the meantime, Shaun, George’s adoptive brother and the love of his life (as he is of hers), has proven to be immune to the virus that causes one to become a zombie. He is not the only example of such immunity, which apparently results from sexual contact with someone with a reservoir condition — like George. The key members of Shaun’s media group have gone silent, taking refuge with a rogue lab run by Dr. Abbey when the CDC attempted to kill them. They’ve discovered that Kellis-Amberlee is not always fatal, and the CDC doesn’t want that information to get out. The CDC reasons that if the public knows being bitten by a zombie does not always result in the bitten individual becoming a zombie himself, people will be unable to take the necessary next step (which is to kill the bitten person with a shot to the head, immediately, so that the bitten person cannot go on to bite others). More than that, though, the CDC has discovered the real power that comes from keeping a populace constantly terrified — and it likes it. It has essentially become the government, the primary mission of which has become protecting what remains of the American population from zombies.
Dr. Abbey is a bit of a mad scientist, though, taking insane risks (or asking Shaun’s group to take them) for her experiments in finding a cure for Kellis-Amberlee. She asks Shaun to choose a companion and go to Florida to collect mosquitos, because this is the most frightening thing about Kellis-Amberlee yet: it can now be transmitted by a mosquito bite. This is almost certainly due to human agency. The mosquitos were blown onto the Gulf Coast by a tropical storm, causing the United States government to virtually write off Florida as territory lost to the zombies.
Unfortunately, Shaun is rapidly going insane. He hears George in his head, and his hallucinations are progressing to the visual and tactile. He doesn’t much mind this, as he’d rather be with George in his head if he can’t be with her in the flesh. A sane person wouldn’t want to go to Florida, not when traveling means either being constantly monitored by the government on major highways (which would endanger his chances of surviving the CDC) or traveling zombie-infested back roads (which would endanger his chances of surviving zombies, even with his immunity). But the idea rather appeals to Shaun.
And so we have two narratives, told in the first person in alternating chapters: George and her treatment as a human guinea pig by the CDC, and her attempts to escape; and Shaun’s attempt to get to Florida to help Dr. Abbey cure the plague. The adventure ramps up from there, with the tension constantly increasing, the narrative so compelling that the reader becomes unaware of how rapidly she’s turning the pages or even that she’s holding a book. It’s as if this book is being beamed straight into one’s brain, and one is right there alongside George and Shaun. The narrative is crisp and personal, so well-written that it’s almost impossible to stop reading. The climax is powerful, compelling and utterly satisfying. And, for the second time in the course of this trilogy, Mira Grant once again made me cry for a fictional character — so much so that my husband came running into the room to find out what was wrong. I read a lot, and it’s the rare book that will make me cry; I sure never thought a zombie novel would accomplish it. But Grant’s characters are so fully realized that I simply couldn’t help it.
My only complaint is that Grant never properly explains how the clone of George came to have all of George’s memories, right up to the moment of her death. There is an extent to which this makes sense to the structure of the novel, because neither George nor Shaun has this information, and therefore cannot relay it. It seems that one of the scientists with whom they interact might have that information, though, and it would be absolutely in George’s character to pester the scientists who are experimenting on her until they give her the information, or to otherwise get hold of it. Grant makes some effort at an explanation, but it is incomplete and doesn’t ring true.
Blackout is not a stand-alone novel; you need to read Feed and Deadline first. But that’s okay; you won’t want to miss those two wonderful novels in any event. If you think you’re fed up with zombies, well, I’m right there with you, but you need to make an exception for the NEWSFLESH trilogy. This is adventure science fiction at its very best.
Terry’s review of Blackout is both thoughtful and comprehensive, so I’ll focus on my thoughts regarding the novel’s structure. The primary-character work in Blackout is excellent, as it was in the preceding novels. Shaun and George Mason are similarly-minded, and yet still individuals, reacting to stress and problems in ways which prove why they were considered the top of their respective fields. When Shaun relaxes enough to enjoy being an Irwin in his element, effortlessly killing zombies and “poking dead things with sticks,” it’s easy to see why any similarly-minded person would go into that line of blogging. As George puts her investigative mind to work, gathering information and asking uncomfortable questions, she gets another opportunity to prove why she was the Newsie chosen to follow a presidential candidate’s campaign in Feed. She was still an active presence in Deadline (after a fashion), but alternating her experiences with Shaun’s gives Mira Grant the opportunity to further broaden the narrative scope and follow the widening ripples of the Rising as everyday people continue to adapt the parameters of what they consider “normal” life.
Up to this point in the series, the science has been easily accessible to my layman’s limited understanding of viruses and genetics. Things get a little hazy in Blackout, though, requiring a hefty suspension of disbelief in order to get through some of the weaker parts: secret cloning labs, the specifics of cloning technology itself, the various complicated machinations of the CDC, etc. I re-read the “villanous exposition speech” a few times, and I’m still not completely sold on what the ultimate endgame was or how anyone legitimately expected it to work. George’s unexpected demise at the end of Feed — and Shaun’s slow descent into madness throughout Deadline — were deeply affecting, and I was heavily invested in seeing the two of them reunite, despite (or maybe because of) elements of their relationship that, in retrospect, I really should have seen coming.
Moreover, the satellite characters orbiting George and Shaun aren’t as compelling or captivating as the Masons, especially with the various personal bombshells dropped throughout the book. It’s not the supporting characters’ fault, since this isn’t really their story, but the unfortunate end result is that when bad things happen and sacrifices are made, all I cared about was whether George and Shaun made it out alive. Everyone and everything else became expendable. This may have been Grant’s design; George and Shaun have made it blatantly obvious throughout NEWSFLESH that the only people they need and trust are each other, and everyone else is free to do as they please. I didn’t expect to become complicit in that exclusivity, which makes me question myself as a reader and how I interpret what an author puts on the page and what they might be leaving off.
That said, I do think Blackout is a strong ending to a phenomenally good trilogy, and I’m guaranteed to pick up a copy of Rise: The Complete Newsflesh Collection, which compiles all of the accompanying short stories and novellas that were previously digital-only, at my earliest convenience. I love the world Grant has created, and I’ll take any opportunity I can to spend a little more time in it.
Great review, Terry!
I really enjoyed the Newsflesh trilogy.