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July 11, 2006

Filed under: fiction»reviews»wellington

Monster Island, by David Wellington

There are far fewer zombie books than there are zombie movies. No doubt the visual appeal of the undead has a lot to do with this--zombies are a lot more menacing with a lot of tricky editing than as a slow, fumbling cannibal horde, and directors like Romero have always played on the creative costuming available to previously human monsters. Yet since the appeal of the zombie is less as an antagonist and more as a pressure cooker for the main characters, there's certainly room for them in prose. David Wellington's Monster Island attempts to explore this genre, but like its clumsy things that go bump in the night, it suffers a number of missteps along the way.

The setup is very smart. Dekalb, the main character, is a former UN weapons inspector who was traveling in Somaliland with his daughter when the zombification began. The lesser-developed countries, being heavily armed and used to conflict, survive largely intact, while Europe and the US fall to the undead. With aid efforts suddenly dropped as a result, the Somali warlord is left without her AIDS medication, and she dispatches Dekalb to UN Headquarters in New York City--accompanied by a troop of female child soldiers--to pick up AZT. In return, she'll keep his daughter safe. Tossing a monkey wrench into the plan is a medical student who figured out how to beat the brain-liquifying part of the resurrection process. He's undead and suffers from the same hunger as the rest, but he's self-aware and marginally more coordinated.

All of which has the potential to be an interesting, grounded, science-fiction take on the traditional zombie legend. But then Wellington starts to bring in mystical networks of "death energy," far less interesting motivations, and (in my eyes, worst of all) an undead druid who's been sitting in a museum display case for thousands of years. It is just a pet peeve of mine that bringing a geeky adoration of the Celts into anything ruins it, but in this case it is certainly true. The plot takes a nose-dive into something much less dynamic and much more predictable.

Monster Island got a huge boost in its promotion by being prominently featured on uber-tech blog Boing Boing, since it was previewed as a series of blog posts. As a result, its visibility has been heightened for probably millions of people like me, who vaguely remember it while browsing the stacks. But was it worth their breathless promotion? Sadly, no! It's not a bad title. It's a better book than the Resident Evil series were movies. But if I had to pick a place to revitalize zombies in popular fiction, I don't think I'd start here.

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