Ok, first of all, what the hell is up with that cover? In what world is Moses Todd supposed to look like a refugee from a paranormal romance series airing on the CW? Not in mine, that’s for sure.
Alright, now that that’s off my chest we can continue. What we have here is the sequel/prequel to Alden Bell’s initial foray into the zombie apocalypse, The Reapers Are the Angels. This time around we follow former secondary characters Moses Todd and his brother in their rambles across a ravaged America prior to their meeting with Temple from the first book. Moses was really more of an antagonist to Temple than a villain, so seeing him fleshed out further here didn’t come across as either: a) a betrayal of the character’s nature or b) a picture of a completely unsympathetic anti-hero. Bell was even able to make Moses’ brother Abraham, not much more than a vile snake in the first book, at least have explanations for his character and behaviour that made sense and turned him into something more approximating a human being. In addition to these two characters, and a varied assortment of post-apocalyptic survivor misfits in supporting roles, we have the new character of “The Vestal,” something of a throw-back to Temple in that she is a strong female able to take care of herself, though different in that she is no warrior, but rather one who deploys the more traditional feminine charms in her defense along with a unique condition that makes her survival in zombie-world easier than it is for most.
Once again we have a road-trip/quest (I wonder whether other types of story are possible/interesting in the zombie apocalypse context?) with the delivery of a person somewhere as the end goal. This time it is up to the brothers Todd to deliver the Vestal to an enclave of civilization in Colorado in order for the powers that be to find out what makes her tick. Once again we have a detailed meditation on the character of the shattered landscape of America with a view to the kind of individuals that are able to thrive, or at least endure, as survivors in a blighted world. It’s interesting to see brought into even sharper focus that fact that the walking dead aren’t even the biggest problem for this world. They are almost laughable in the ease with which they can be avoided (unless you’re caught off-guard or cornered by sheer numbers), and as usual it is the humans who survive from whom there is the most to fear. Bell has an interesting way, yet again, of ruminating on the fact that the zombies aren’t really evil, perhaps they aren’t even an unholy plague, they’re just another set of obstacles in life that one either contends with or is consumed by (literally in this case). Once again we have the lilting Southern Gothic voice that tinges the text with biblical and oratorical significance and that is very pleasant to read.
There’s a lot of “once agains” there, and they’re not completely meant to be derogatory. The story is a good one and I enjoy Bell’s writing enough that I don’t mind “more of the same” in this world. I’m not sure if Moses is as successful a central character as Temple was though, and I think I preferred his much more ambiguous characterization in the first novel. It’s interesting to once again see someone who actually fits in better in this wasted world than he ever did before the fall, though unlike Temple he was not born into the apocalypse and thus can have moments of regret for what has been lost, at least on the personal if not the societal level. The search for purpose is a theme that looms large in both books, though even the attaining of purpose isn’t always enough to keep one sane. In Moses we see a man driven by two things: the need to protect his corrupt brother from the lawful retribution of the world at large, and the need to follow a personal code to the exclusion of all else, even good sense or happiness. Without the code Moses is just a drifter prey to illusions brought on by emotion and desire, though he doesn’t seem to appreciate that he may have built his purpose on illusions of his own.
All in all I liked Exit Kingdom and, if you’re a fan of the zombie apocalypse, you should like this one. Bell mixes some philosophical musings and lyrical prose in with his blood-spattered gore and harsh violence so there’s more than just an edge of your seat adventure to be gotten from the book. I don’t think it’s quite as successful as the first volume, though I’m not quite sure why. Still, Exit Kingdom is a truly enjoyable read when all is said and done.