David Wellington,
Monster Nation
(Thunder's Mouth, 2006)

We start off with a man named Bannerman Clark, a Colorado National Guard crisis response expert, getting an urgent call to a state penitentiary. When he gets there, he finds that the guards in the solitary confinement area have been turned into seemingly mindless, vicious cannibals who are eating the prisoners and each other, although few of them actually end up dead.

Fearing the onset of a plague or biological weapon strike, Clark has the prison go into lockdown, but the warden just left for a brief vacation in California. Operating on the epidemic theory, Clark tracks the warden to a hospital where everyone has, you guessed it, been turned into seemingly mindless, vicious cannibals. Meanwhile, one patient there, a young woman, appears to be dead (i.e., no pulse, cold, getting stiff), but remains conscious, although she has no memory. She takes the name Nilla (after someone gives her a box of cookies); she seems less mindless and brutal than other plague victims, although she still experiences strong urges to eat healthy people.

Interspersed throughout the story, little snippets like newspaper headlines, radio talk-show transcripts, government announcements and instant-message texts expand on the spread of bizarre violence, killings and cannibalism. As Clark tries to approach the problem from the plague-epidemic angle, Nilla starts getting visions of a man (or a spirit or demon?) named Mael Mag Och who tries to convince Nilla that she and he are there on an ancient quest to cleanse the Earth of mankind's desecrations and lead the undead into ruling a newer, simpler, purified world. The interspersed comments, mentioned above, eventually tell readers what really caused this world-engulfing plague of violence, cannibalism and walking dead, and all the main characters (who survive) converge on that source, albeit with differing motives.

This story starts off with lots of grisly carnage, and it seldom lets up from the onslaught of grotesque butchery. This could have ended up as a cheap knock-off of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and other slasher-zombie shock movies, but it didn't. What kept it from that fate? Character depth! The four main characters (two focal ones and two big ancillary ones) are Clark, Nilla, Mag Och and a man named Dick who is an early convert to the status of the undead.

The story moves rapidly, the characters are fascinating, action abounds and the whole thing is just plain interesting and, in a grisly way, fun.

The story does have three flaws, however. A minor one is that the butchery, mayhem and gore seem unnecessarily and somewhat gratuitously over-detailed, especially early on. I know this is a zombie story, and those elements are prerequisites, but still. Flaw number two is the Mag Och character; when all is said and done, I'm not sure I know what purpose he served in the story.

Flaw number three is the ending. I'm not sure it's even a flaw, as I think it is a set-up for the next book. But the ending of Monster Nation is somewhat abrupt, inconclusive and leaves you saying, "And then what?" Monster Nation is the second book in the series, following Monster Island, which I have not read. From what others tell me, Monster Nation actually precedes the story in Monster Island, so maybe I should read that, and see where this all goes.

Monster Nation is a well-written, albeit gory novel, with fascinating characters, a strange and interesting premise, and a few flaws that do not detract too much from the enjoyment of the reading experience. If you can stomach a grisly zombie novel, as long as it contains a good story, here is where to find just that.

by Chris McCallister
20 January 2007

Buy it from Amazon.com.