(2012) V. M. Zitto, Hodder & Stoughton, £11.99, trdpbk, 418pp, ISBN 978-1-444-72518-8
Is there no stopping the current march of zombie novels? Apparently not: they are proving popular. However what this onslaught is doing is ensuring that many variations of the trope are being explored.
The Return Man's take is that the zombie infestation has taken over the western half of the US while an emergency dictatorial government controls the eastern half. However when the evacuation of the western half took place, former clinician Henry Marco stayed behind to search for his wife. In the meantime he also works for a relative in the safe zone (communicating by satellite link) who hires him to track down zombies who were former loved ones of others in the safe zone. Marco 'returns' (kills) these zombies.
All well and good until the government wants him to go to the military hospital where a former colleague of Marco's who was researching on the zombie plague was last seen and where research notes may exist. A team is dropped in to assist Marco but they come to a sticky end due to the interference of a third party who then goes on to assist Marco. The question is what will they find at the military hospital and who exactly is after what? Of course they have to get there first and this means travelling across zombie infected states.
The Return Man is a good beach read book and Zito can carry narrative – this is his debut novel. However, irritatingly the chapters are themselves sub-divided and here often right in the middle of whatever is going on. This means that reading the book is like watching N. American TV with its advert breaks every 10 minutes.
With the book's opening chapter I had thought that Zito had nailed one problem with the zombie trope that many fall into. How, after many weeks (or years in this case), do zombies survive without living humans off of which to feed? Well the answer Zitto seemingly gave us was that they can eat anything and so early on in the story we see a zombie catch a live frog. All well and good, but then in later chapters we learn that zombies can live for years in confined rooms and vehicles without any food source whatsoever. Yes, I know this is SF/F, but the trick to write the genre convincingly is to ensure that the reader has to suspend as little disbelief as possible and this sadly Zitto decided not to do but to forsake it for imagery. All well and good, but I maintain that a worthy SF/F writer can do both: minimise the need to suspend disbelief with as much rationality as possible and create good imagery.
Nonetheless, overlook such misgivings and the book does contain several good set pieces. Indeed, it is not difficult to immerse oneself in Marco's world and the action does carry you along.
As for the plot itself, it does have a fairly complete story arc plus there is a teaser development at the end that sets up possible sequels: there could be more missions for Marco. Furthermore, this is suggested in an interview with the author at the book's end. All well and good and I dare say we might see more adventures from this particular stable in the future given the current penchant for zombies. Having said that, I do wonder if the author can write using other tropes?
Then there's the science. Many zombie novels skate over the supposed biology underpinning the zombie catastrophe. Zitto at least makes a fair fist of it. Light on the detail – always the best option when doing fictional science – he does have a vague molecular biological explanation which is sufficient to carry the plot. (It seems from the acknowledgements he had help here and there is nothing wrong with that, indeed it is to be commended; would that more SF authors get help with the science than try to bluff their way as those readers who are scientifically literate – which is a surprising size of a developed nation's population – will spot it.)
Those into zombies will enjoy The Return Man as it pushes all the trope's main buttons, and for the rest of us this is a fair read. But this is a debut novel so one cannot expect a masterwork with a first outing even if a tiny minority of authors do do that. If Zito develops as a writer then he could possibly be worth keeping an eye on for greater things. We will no doubt find out.
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