I always start my zombie novel reviews with a disclaimer. I selectively dabble in the genre, reading stories suggested by my editor, Felicia A. Sullivan, who has read every book in the genre (and has had a hand in editing a vast majority of them). I'll admit from the start that I'm not a major fan of the mindless gore fest, and Felicia passes on recommendations with that consideration in mind. It was with great pleasure that I could return the favor and send something in her direction. I have read Joseph Souza's works in the past and know him from the local Maine writing scene. His detective fiction and crime stories have won awards and earned him New England acclaim. For several years, his work and writing advice has captivated my interest and kept me on the writing path. Several months ago, when he gave me his first draft of The Reawakening...out of nowhere, I was simply blown away. From the very beginning of the story, I sensed that I was in store for something sinisterly different. I hesitate to use the word refreshing for this genre. What an understatement. His story unfolded into the most unique interpretation of undead "literature" that I have ever encountered. The Reawakening carefully preserves many of the traditional elements of the zombie genre, while building a new, deviously intelligent post-apocalyptic platform. Putting Joe and Felicia together on this project was a hardcore win for the genre.
The story starts on a small farm in northern Maine, visited by novelist Thomas Swiftley and his troubled daughter, Dar. Swiftley's brother (Rick) owns the farm, having suddenly traded his fast tracked career as a bio-genetics engineer, for the slower paced, self-sustainable lifestyle provided by the Maine countryside. Thomas couldn't have picked a worse time to visit. The animals on the farm start acting strangely, aggressively attacking each other. Suspecting a widespread illness among his own stock of cows and pigs, Rick euthanizes the animals he raised from birth. After finishing the solemn task, everyone is stunned when they start to come back to life, one by one. Peaceful and loving for a few seconds, they quickly transform into murderous creatures with one goal. To kill and eat. The horror intensifies as they soon discover that the disease has consumed the surrounding town, and that the peaceful moment before the madness is not isolated to animals.
Souza's descriptions are vivid, breathing life (or in many cases death) into each scene, without overdoing it. I always carried a solid picture of the setting and the action in my mind. Character development is strong, especially during the Long Winter, where the action slows and one of their biggest challenges emerges. The farm's survivors emerge from the winter transformed. Some stronger, some weaker, some just different altogether. The reader will experience these transformations in perfectly balanced detail through Souza's writing. I particularly enjoyed the scientist's mental journey and the emergence of the group's leader. As the snow thaws, nail biting, gory action washes over the newly transformed group and forces them to make agonizing decisions that propel the trilogy forward at rocket speed.
Another aspect that strongly sets this book apart, is the scientific platform of Souza's story. Rick Swiftely's farm isn't exactly what it seems. I won't take it much further than that. I will say that Thomas's brother has some interesting theories about the undead, which he can prove. Souza takes multiple scientific principles and wraps them neatly in one of the most fascinating explanations of undead physiology that I have come across to this point. What causes The Reawakening and rejuvenation of brain activity? What kind of brain activity? What effect does this brain activity have on the surrounding environment and other undead? Muscle activity? Souza really tackles these questions and breaks new ground in a way that doesn't diminish the raw terror and visceral reaction to the constant threat of being consumed by the undead.
Overall, this is a tense, intelligently engaging story from start to finish. As a trilogy, I can't wait for the sequel. I'm utterly intrigued by the future development of a post-apocalyptic world that goes far beyond the zombies that are mindlessly gnawing away at all life on earth.