M.R. Carey’s 2014 novel, The Girl with All the Gifts, was lauded by both Terry and Ray for bringing new life to tired zombie-fiction tropes. The Boy on the Bridge (2017) occupies a prequel/companion/sequel position, in that most of this novel takes place before Melanie’s story, but a twenty-years-later epilogue swoops around and seems to pick up after The Girl with All the Gifts ended. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read that novel yet, but I’m familiar enough with the plot/events to recognize significant places and people like Beacon, Hotel Echo, Dr. Caldwell, and others as they’re mentioned.) Do not follow my example, of course; read the books in order, as what happens in this second volume is sure to make more sense.
The Boy on the Bridge reveals the story behind a massive tank/laboratory named the Rosalind Franklin, affectionately referred to as “Rosie” by her twelve-person crew, broken down into two equally-staffed groups of scientists and soldiers. The crew have been sent out to follow the trail of a research vehicle (the Charles Darwin) sent out some time before, picking up samples left behind by the previous team to see whether the samples have been infected with the Hungry plague which precipitated the global event known as the Breakdown. The scientists are tasked with retrieving data and more samples from the greater world outside Beacon, near the southern coast of England, roaming as far north as the Scottish Highlands in their pursuit. The soldiers are there to escort the scientists and shoot any Hungries who makes themselves known.
As Rosie slowly crawls across the English countryside, two characters stand out and take hold of the narrative: Stephen Greaves, a teenaged savant on the autism spectrum, and Dr. Samrina Khan, his mentor, and a woman in the deeply uncomfortable position of finding herself pregnant on a mission which may take well over a year to complete. Stephen’s unique perspective and single-minded curiosity cast a different light on zombie-like behavior, while Dr. Khan’s expertise and refusal to abandon the mission or her unborn child create an appealing level of tension between herself and the other crew members, as well as within the larger narrative.
Unfortunately, none of the other characters in The Boy on the Bridge rise above clichéd expectations, and serve only to create drama or plot-obstacles. If you’re familiar with any mil-SF film or novel, you’ll recognize the roles filled by Lieutenant McQueen (hothead who makes every dangerous situation worse) and Colonel Carlisle (career military man with a questionable past and an unquestionable nobility), and the other soldiers do little more than react to situations. As far as Dr. Khan’s fellow scientists go, Dr. Fournier is a walking disaster, but the others don’t distinguish themselves enough for them to stand out in any meaningful way. The entire crew could have been shaved down, allowing important characters to shine, with little to no effect on the overall plot.
This is, in essence, a road-trip tale, and Carey makes you feel every one of those long, slow kilometers, to the point where the adherence to the interminable boredom of such a journey slows the narrative to a crawl. When events do break up travel — collecting samples, encountering an unexpected group of people, sabotage from within — they follow the long-established pattern I’ve seen in so many other zombie stories. Even the amazing discovery made by Stephen during weeks and months of observation is something I’d already seen in a George Romero movie. In fact, many of the plot points within The Boy on the Bridge were directly reminiscent of crucial events and plot points in Romero’s more recent …of the Dead movies, to the point where I began correctly anticipating big revelations. This was a big disappointment to me, as I had been so impressed by Carey’s use of the Hungry plague, and I was hoping for something more original and inventive, as in Mira Grant’s NEWSFLESH series.
Again, I haven’t read The Girl with All the Gifts, so I’m not entirely sure how it and The Boy on the Bridge are meant to work in concert. The originality and freshness of The Girl with All the Gifts don’t quite translate to its follow-up, which is a shame, because I had high expectations for The Boy on the Bridge, considering the praise Carey has received for this series and so many of his other works. At some point, I’ll sit down and read The Girl with All the Gifts, and my hope is that I’ll then understand why Carey was inspired to reveal Rosie’s backstory, and that I’ll have a new appreciation for The Boy on the Bridge.