Emily Bestler Books, 2017
(See also my reviews of Warm Bodies and The New Hunger)
After R’s return to life from zombiehood and the cascade of change his recovery has sparked in all of zombiekind, the world is in a delicate state of flux, its population on the verge of reclaiming its humanity on a colossal scale.
And the evil doesn’t like that at all.
This time, the forces of order through destruction and domination take a new form, no longer flesheating skeletons but a continent-wide network of insincerely smiling suits who call themselves the Axiom Group, determined to control or eliminate the resurrection power that seems to stem from R and Julie’s love. Along with their few surviving friends, the pair take off in search of some way to preserve what they’ve only begun to build together, but Axiom is dangerous for more than its weapons and numbers. It carries a connection to the pre-zombie life that R can’t remember and doesn’t want. Fighting Axiom means allowing its secrets to resurface from the basement of his mind, secrets that threaten to overwrite the very life he’s trying to hold onto.
The Burning World is decidedly more meandering than its predecessor. The frequent interludes narrated by the collective consciousness of all accumulated human experience are sometimes insightful and do include some plot setup for the end, but their quantity when combined with the more essential flashbacks to R’s first life slow the forestory down severely in places. It doesn’t help that much of that forestory, when we do get back to it, is taken up with our heroes rehashing new permutations of the same argument about the fact that they have no solid plan.
Abram, the group’s newest ally of convenience, constantly belittling and overruling Julie gets particularly grating, especially when he’s routinely right about her ideas being fickle and unhelpful. The ultimate point is the good one that everyone is uncertain, flailing in the dark, and making things up as they go just as much as R is, Julie included, and R can love her even better as a flawed, human equal than as an ideal on a pedestal, but this directionless flailing, however realistic, is unsatisfying in a narrative, and is only resolved in time for a lead-in to the third and final book, rather than a climax of its own. Meanwhile, this validated dismissal of the primary female character’s input seems to run counter to the general message of universal human respect, as do a few other small instances.
There’s a moment when R insists on running into a seemingly suicidal fight, asks Julie to stay behind out of danger, and leaves her with the thought that “she’ll either respect my wishes, or she won’t.” She doesn’t, of course, and he doesn’t hold this against her, but the hypocrisy of his hope that she will “respect his wishes” for her safety in the exact moment he’s disregarding her identical wishes for his, is never called out, so it’s difficult to tell whether such a moment is an excessively subtle piece of the overall commentary, or simply a contradiction that slipped by.
For all that, The Burning World makes abundantly clear where its heart lies, and it earns an A still bordering on an A+ for the weight of its content combined with the sheer poetry of its execution -- no less than readers have learned to expect of Isaac Marion.
R’s trek through both his present and past is a harrowing, blistering tour of every excuse ever concocted to deny a person’s humanity, or the value of humanity’s better nature altogether.
Because I have my own family to worry about first.
Because I’m too small to help.
Because God wants it this way.
Because there is no God, or any other form of purpose or point, so we might as well take what we please from whoever has it.
Because the fact that I have more than someone else must somehow prove that I did something to deserve it.
Because I am a real person, and they, for whatever quibbling difference of biology or geography, are not.
And so on.
This is the story of an ex-zombie, an ex-nothing, who thought all he wanted was to be a person with a life and now must decide what kind of person he is and what to do with that life. It’s the story of a man trying to build an identity in a world that largely considers masculinity and humanity to be synonymous, and measures both by one’s ability to establish a distinction of “us versus them” and cling to the winning side of it. It’s about the strength it takes to step back from that quickest route to feeling like a person and say no, I can do better than that.
The Burning World builds on Warm Bodies’ unique critique of the zombie genre’s usual hyper-indulgence of the instinct to dehumanize an enemy, developing the concept into a brutal and timely skewering of apathy, greed, and rationalized cruelty, while rooting itself back in the original’s celebration of life, of connection, communication, love, and the determination to create something better than what was there before. These are still the cure to unfeeling, unthinking, ever-consuming zombiehood itself.
At the same time, this remains a deeply personal story as well, pushing R and Julie’s relationship past the rush of first discovering each other and into the challenge of balancing and bridging their separate private struggles and impossible hopes for themselves.
Through all the themes large and small, the prose is, as ever, lyrical yet direct, unapologetically passionate, and able to make even the most obvious and universal of feelings fresh and new.
While Warm Bodies is the more satisfyingly self-contained read, and one I would recommend to anyone, I second Marion’s assertion that The Burning World can be read out of order. And maybe it can’t wait for the time it takes to catch up. As he says, this is a book for now.
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