Before I get into the heart of my review on “Rot and Ruin” – I just want to say that I think it takes a certain stroke of genius for a writer to make a reader somewhat misty-eyed after reading a zombie novel. I don’t say that in the sense that the book made me sad (though it certainly had its harrowing moments; my heart started doing jumping jacks and backflips in the transition of certain scenes). Rather, “Rot and Ruin” manages to do what a good book should do – take its readers into the heart of its imagined environment and display a full range of sentiments and alternating tensions to engage the reader. I won’t say it’s “practically perfect” as far as the portrayal is concerned, but it’s hard not to take “Rot and Ruin” as a fun ride, while at the same time never falling into the same steps as typical novels in its genre. When I considered the whole of this book after its conclusion, I personally loved it.
Benny Imura is the 15-year-old protagonist who’s, at first, on a deadline to find a job or else he gets his rations cut. In post-First Night society, this is a big deal, considering supplies are limited after the world’s been overrun with zombies and causing groups of people to live in fear and isolation of the greater world around them. But I’ll mention that Benny’s situation is kind of funny considering the teen’s dragging his heels in the process and the range of jobs he attempts to go for but ultimately ends up blowing off are actually pretty cool. On the other hand, Benny’s brother Tom is in the business of killing zoms (slang term for zombies in the novel), and it’s only a matter of time before Benny ends up following in his brother’s footsteps in the family business, rather reluctantly.
Benny takes on the job, but he has a bit of a naive, glorified view of the process of zombie killing as well as a secret loathing for his older brother despite others portraying Tom as a genius and respectable figure in his craft. This comes in opposition to the bounty hunters that Benny and his friends seemingly emulate. Benny views his brother as a coward that ran away and didn’t return to help his parents during First Night. It isn’t until Benny starts seeing the “work” that the novel takes a turn into a coming-of-age scenario where he sees the reality for what it is – his heroes aren’t who he thought they were, zombies aren’t the only monsters they have to stand up against, his vision of the past isn’t quite the reality, and when used the right way, a sword can be a really effective weapon against a zom (especially when Tom uses one 🙂 ).
There are a lot of elements playing into this novel – coming of age, betrayal, romance (there’s elements of this playing throughout the novel, but it doesn’t delve heavily until the latter part), heavily humored, adventure, horror and dystopic society. It never once felt overwhelming to me in terms of the interplay, but I will say there is a bit of overemphasis in the message that zoms actually aren’t the monsters, but shells of former people who can’t control their actions and have lost their sentience. I think this message was clearly shown in segments of the novel and worked well in themselves, but I think the novel probably would’ve done better to scale back somewhat to make it less repetitive. Still, the message itself is a powerful one and not lost in the events of the novel.
I really liked the interplay of action and personality shown in “Rot and Ruin”. While I might not have loved every character, I had a sense of who they were and what they stood for. Hearing the backstories behind the story made the characters that much more dimensional, even among the secondary characters. Benny and Tom both grow in their own ways in scheme of the novel, but it’s also refreshing to see that female characters like Nix and the mysterious Lost Girl take prominent roles as well. The losses that occur in the novel are that much more meaningful because of this emphasis on character, and yes, there were places where the deaths hit me hard, without going into too many spoilers. But it’s not all doom and gloom – “Rot and Ruin” was surprisingly hilarious, and the minor quirks of the characters weren’t lost on me, playing well in the interchange between the harrowing moments.
For those who want an atypical take on the zombie novel in a YA spectrum, I would highly recommend “Rot and Ruin”. Jonathan Mayberry does a fantastic job of giving an even blend of elements that prove entertaining, engaging, and imaginative, and seeing this book as the first in a series, it makes for a wonderful ride to come.
Overall score: 4/5