The Living (Warm Bodies #3)
By Isaac Marion
Zola Books, 2018
See also my reviews for Warm Bodies (#1), The New Hunger (#1.5), and The Burning World (#2), and witness my whole concept of the zombie genre taking a one-eighty.
On the run from an undead mega-corporation bent on consuming the world, and a fire-worshipping cult that means to reduce it to ashes, R, Julie, and their friends take to the roads, crossing the burnt out-shell of a U.S that’s in the process of remaking itself. They’re not sure what it’s remaking itself into, or whether they themselves might have a say in the answer, but before they can stop to find out, there’s one enemy that must be faced, that cannot be outrun — the ghost of the person R used to be, the one who helped set in motion everything he and his new family are now fighting against.
There are multiple instances, enough to be mildly irritating, of R’s friends making jokes about him to the effect that he’s overly sensitive, ethically conscious, or effeminate. A realism-based argument can certainly be made for this choice; the characters are imperfect people from a hard post-apocalyptic world, and someone like R could not even exist in the present world without drawing similar comments. Yet it doesn’t feel like realism. It feels like the author second-guessing and apologizing for the otherwise fearless sentimentality of R’s voice, and that works against the book as a whole. Slightly.
There’s also a scene, the only private scene between Julie and Nora this installment, in which they discuss the similarities between their respective love interests. Their conversation, while helpful for understanding both their trains of thought, draws unfortunately harsh attention to the book’s iffy Bechdel status and the series’ recurring, divided set of gender roles. Characters making the self-defining, heroic journey back from the Dead are mostly male. Living characters who wait, guide, incentivize, and judge are mostly female.
As a pattern in a story with a varied and fascinating cast, I’m compelled to note it, but given the particulars of what’s expressed through those male characters’ journeys, The Living gets a full free pass on this front as far as I’m concerned. More on that shortly.
The Living is an utterly breathtaking read, a fitting conclusion, and worth every minute of the roller coaster of a wait that fans have endured. With the introductions done and the dominoes lined up, this is one of those chapters of pure payoff that only comes once a fandom, and rarely so satisfyingly.
That’s not to say it’s overstuffed with non-stop action. As in the rest of the series, battles and explosions come only often enough to be heart-pounding in their importance each and every time, punctuating and adding an epic accent to the soulfully personal central story, which strikes every beat it’s been hurtling toward with the same weight and resonance as the fate of the world.
The text is densely poetic, perhaps even more so than the previous books, so much so that I’m tempted to reread it in ebook form solely for the non-paper-defacing highlighter tool. Marion can craft words into a sledgehammer and then a scalpel within the course of a few paragraphs, and that balance of intensity and restraint scales from individual lines to the overall plot and every level in between. He knows not only how to explain a thing, but when not to. Buildings burn, skeletons menace, characters argue, and more often than not, the point of the scene sits quietly in plain view waiting to be noticed, patiently and powerfully unspoken.
Yes, the perspective is thoroughly, conspicuously male (which is okay; men deserve their fair half of the stage too, after all), but it’s not just another echo of the same oversaturated male views of the world we see reflected over and over in vastly more than half of media every day. The social commentary hinted at in the first book and expanded upon in the second is further developed here into a finer-edged point. The Living is, in large part, a story about toxic masculinity; its myriad forms, its contradictory interpretations, its traps, its role in every other problem the story touches upon, and above all, the challenge of escaping from it.
The female characters are written with respect. They’re smart and complex and do what suits their own interests and honor codes rather than what they’re told. Even when they’re called upon to give or withhold affection as required to drive the men’s plots, they’re given far more nuanced and considered motivations for doing so than the norm.
But this is not their story.
It’s not a story about women going up against a bigoted system that’s obviously, blatantly unfair to them and overcoming it. I can recommend shelves full of those stories, and I'm always happy to discover new ones, but The Living is something just as necessary and much rarer. It's a story about men staring down that same system — not personified by roving rapists or abusive fathers or anything so comfortingly external and easy to beat up, but in the much more threatening form of their own assumptions, habits, and the lessons they’ve been taught — and either successfully conquering it, or not.
Like The Burning World, The Living isn’t always an easy read, in spite of its lyrical beauty and its page-turning pace. It treks through ugly places and jabs ruthlessly at parts of the mind already bruised by current events and daily life. But for all its incisiveness, it’s the fervent underlying optimism that makes it linger and stand out, and gives rise to its most haunting moments and quotes.
“We climbed from deep pits. The lowest thought of the basest human is a staggering achievement. [...] It’s easier to fall than to climb, and yet against all logic, life keeps rising. The line wavers, but the trajectory is upward.”
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