As zombie apocalypse novels go, The Girl With All The Gifts is one of the best.
The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey is a stand-alone zombie apocalypse novel that has plenty of action and adventure as expected, but also takes time to focus on ethical dilemmas in a post-apocalyptic world. The Girl With All The Gifts asks the question "How far would you go to save the world?" and the answers given by the characters are wide, varied, ethical and unethical. What's the harm in a little human experimentation if it could save the rest of the world?
A mutation of the cordyceps fungus, the real-world parasitic mind-controlling fungus that essentially turns ants into zombies, has resulted in the widespread infection and zombification of the world's human population (known as hungries, because calling them zombies would be weird or something...). People who are exposed have a short incubation period before the cordyceps fungus has completely ravaged their brain, but there are some children who are resistant to the fungus, and some who are enhanced by it. The story follows Melanie, an enhanced hungry, exploring her life as an unwitting test subject, and exploring the lives of others who quickly become dependent on Melanie for survival.
As I mentioned at the start, The Girl With All The Gifts plays with the ethics of experimentation in a post-apocalyptic environment. The resistant and enhanced children are like no other infected people, so logically it is assumed that the answer to the cure is buried somewhere deep inside of them. On the one hand you have Miss Justineau who is studying these children as a psychologist, trying to learn as much as she can through observation. On the other hand you have Dr Caldwell, who will pick children at random and start carving up different parts of their body in an attempt to learn about the infection at a cellular level. Sometimes she carves them up while they are still living, just to see if it makes a difference. Caldwell and Justineau are extreme opposites, and Carey makes sure to put them into conflict as many times as he can throughout the story. It makes for some compelling confrontations, exploring the idea of experimentation that serves the greater good, but at the cost of your humanity.
One of the facets Carey plays with in this book is the symbiotic relationship between Melanie the girl and the fungus that makes her want to desperately feed on human flesh. Melanie is imbued with the innocence of a child, and shows genuine wonder and amazement at just about every new thing she learns. These qualities provide quite the contrast to the fear and loathing she receives from the non-infected humans in the laboratory. Carey makes Melanie so endearing, and makes us want to protect her, which makes the impact of those scenes where Melanie goes full hungry so much harder. It doesn't matter how hard she tries because Melanie will always be feared for the threat that she represents, so the strength she shows by fighting the cordyceps and the behaviours it tries to force on her is so impressive and meaningful.
The Girl With All The Gifts is an action-centric book, but it somehow seems to move at a very slow pace. I found it very easy to get into and read through the first hundred pages in no time, but then the pace of the story slowed down to a crawl, and reading the book became a chore. There seemed to be a lot of words expended for not much gain. There seemed to be a lot of repetition. The arguments between Caldwell and Justineau seem to cover the same ground quite frequently. This is a great story, but it could have easily covered the same ground and provided the same thought experiments at a much shorter length.
As far as zombie apocalypse novels go, The Girl With All The Gifts is one of the best I've read. In a tired genre, Carey is able to offer something fresh, and while this book has many similarities to the Naughty Dog game The Last Of Us, I feel that they both offer something different and are both leading the way in showing that there can be more to zombie apocalypse stories than simple shambling humanoids moaning for brains.
Ryan Lawler, 8.9/10
The Girl with all the Gifts is a dark story of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. A fungus mutates from infecting and controlling insects to infecting humans, making them zombie like creatures who are nicknamed “hungries” due to their uncontrollable hunger for human flesh. This story focuses on a small group of survivors in a military base in the countryside.
Zombies and a military base – I’m sure you’re thinking: Haven’t we heard this story before? Well, yes and no… mostly no though as this is the story of Melanie, a bright little girl who enjoys going to her classes and living in her small world. But who is Melanie and why is it that she and her classmates are prisoners in the base, locked into wheelchairs reminiscent of those used to render Hannibal Lector incapable of harm?
This is the novelty of The Girl with all the Gifts as this is Melanie’s and our own journey to discover who she really is and whether she will be of any use to save what is left of humanity. Although this book is set in the UK (albeit taking liberties geographically) it does seem like the rest of the world is also suffering from this same disaster, and whether it is human-made or nature’s own way of mass extermination is as yet unknown.
There are various other characters that Melanie interacts with whom she has very strong feelings about and who treat her in various different ways. Miss Justineau is seen as a sympathetic teaching figure that the children idolise as she tells them stories in her classes, Sergeant Parker is the stern authoritarian figure and Dr Caldwell is the cold and distant researcher. Although these are generalisations seen through a child’s eye these characters all have strong motivations as to why they are acting the way they do and why they are withholding secrets from the children, as well as each other.
The book is very well written and kept me constantly engaged throughout the story. The Girl with all the Gifts changes from one character’s perspective to another during the course of the book and you will constantly have to decide who the victims of this story are, or even whether anyone deserves the honorific “victim”? As we get to know the characters better we see them tested for integrity, resourcefulness and other strengths as well as see their weaknesses shine through.
The Girl with all the Gifts is a book that asks us questions about humanity, whether people are twisted by circumstances beyond their control? I would recommend it to anyone who has a thirst for post-apocalyptic stories or even those who have a passion for zombies as this story will drag you in and hold onto you until the end.
Michelle Herbert, 8.8/10
1 positive reader review(s) for The Girl with all the Gifts
Jo from England
While this should be a great delve into humanity surviving after apocalyptic events with a focus on the children they may have to butcher, unfortunately it simply ends up as a subpar zombie book. All of the characters aside from Melanie are one dimensional and serve merely as plot devices, their emotions and actions not explained apart from simply being put down to "that's who they are". The ending was probably the most rushed aspect of the book, leaving me with a lot of unexplained questions.
7.5/10 from 2 reviews