Friday, February 13, 2015

The Remaining: A Review

D.J. Molles' The Remaining is a zombie-apocalypse set in Central North Carolina near the small town (distant bed room community to the State Capital, Raleigh) of Angier, North Carolina.  The main protagonist, and our point of view, Captain Lee Harden of the United States Army, is on a post collapse recover and reorganize mission, after society has collapsed.  It's a triumph to the forethought of our current politico/military system.......not going real well.  The book is an extended series. The author had left the length of the series open ended, but recently announced that the 6th volume in the series would be the conclusion.
The cover on my book

D.J. (Daniel) Molles is (I am pretty sure) a native of North Carolina, and lives in one of the (what is now a) bedroom communities just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and young daughter.  He is a police officer in Charlotte,  (~7 years) and was at least one point was working on the door busting drug squad. To se the type of mess he might have to deal with see pdf here (Molles shows up briefly on page 8). His wife is a photographer with her own studio, and does the cover work for his novels.  Per the Goodreads blurb, prior to this series, he had published two short stories, "Darkness" and "Survive," which won a short fiction contest through Writer's Digest. The Remaining was his first novel which he self published.  He has since signed a deal with Orbit.  He has some nice interviews out there (here and here) out there, and an interesting post on post on tactical skills.
As a note, back in high school, I used to live just outside the bedroom community that the author does, and live somewhat near the setting of his current novel.  The author is about mid-point of native authors not understanding the distinctive nature of their native foliage/topography.  You do get sense of the woodsy, but still relatively densely populated nature of rural North Carolina. But I don't think many of the readers will realize that these woods are almost always tertiary growth with a huge number of relatively thin, but tall trees fairly tightly spaced.  Because of North Carolinas acidic (granite based) soil, pine trees often predominate.
A fair amount of the action develops on the Southern edge of Raleigh.  Both the Raleigh, and Charlotte urban areas have experienced huge growth, pulling in folks from all over the United States.  So the rather  'vanilla' residential locations, and folks with no particularly Southern style of speech pattern are not at all unusual.  Also rather accurately, with Fort Bragg about an hour south of the location, and Camp Lejeune about less than 2 hours to the southeast, you would expect to see lots of retired, or simply footloose, military people in the area.  I wrote about a home invasion case a while ago, where the invaders got into a loosing (they ran away) fire fight with the ex-special forces neighbor.  So the inordinate amount of military hardware, and capabilities that show up are pretty much on target.
So here is the deal.  The U.S. has set up individual agents with military, and military-social (think Green Beret) skills in command bunkers.  One for each of the 48 lower continental States.  Why only one man, why one per state.  Because as the book sort of implies, that is the silly, political way that government-military decisions get made.  Someone had a little black box money left over and thought it was a good idea.  They didn't have enough money except for small bunkers, and to keep themselves out of trouble, they spread around the money.  With the breakout of the "disease" , mistaken as a form of y. pestis (black plague), it is clear that the folks that told him to batten down in his bunker, are just going through the motions.  To them, it is likely to be just another false alert.  But it isn't.
So he heads out into the world, roughly 30 days after having last heard from his government project manager, and finds things a little different.  He is a little slow to catch onto the zombie nature of the infected.  But then again, these are somewhat different zombies.  They are more like hyped up crystal meth users with their forebrains eaten away.  At least some of them are more clever than typical zombies, and can open doors, and use weapons.  A very tiny minority are not even particularly interested in being violent.  On the plus side, it is difficult, but not impossible, to kill them with something other than head shots.  These aren't magical zombies. 
Even though these are very dangerous zombies, and they have munched through a lot of people, there are still a fair number of survivors: The government's worst case expectation from the disease alone was 7%.  So, as with many of the best zombie-novels, both nice and very dangerous humans are intermixed with the ghoulish biters.  Did I mention there might be a lot of heavy firepower in this neck of the woods?  "I'll see your grenade, and raise you an RPG!"
As a police officer, the author has a very fine eye for details.  Just enough detail to make you feel as though you are there, but not so much that it bogs down. These small details extend to the point of giving the zombies a little bit of an individual personality so that they are not always just stock monsters.
One item to note, is that this is a very intermingled series.  I get the sense that the author keeps writing until he gets a long enough sequence to publish, and then chops it off at the start of the next "action phase". In other words, with a milder form of the cliff hanger.  Since most of the six-book series is already published, availability/delay isn't so much the issue; just don't expect a major wrap up at the end of the book.
So did I like it?  We'll being the first novel that is actually set in areas that I have travelled around (mostly for work) frequently, it would have a relatively high appeal in any case.  I could tell the hero where there are some huge pv solar farms in his neck of the woods.  But even beyond that, I really did like it a lot. A slightly slow startup to build tension and attachment to the character.  Competent good guys against very serious bad guys.  The men are the primary combatants, but the women aren't relegated to the helpless status either.  If beat reporters understand human realities of a slower pacing, a police-author is also going to see the tears and pain, but at a much faster pace. Emotional trauma is not ignored, even as everything goes by in a whirlwind. 
In this 5-book batch of zombie stories, it is the second novel that has struck me as being a particularly good read.  Granted, you expect some genre fun from zombies, but this matches up well with your various action-adventure stories outside the genre.  It seems very similar to the time coming out of the early 1970s when you had so many of the new authors turning to science fiction/fantasy.  Zombies are attracting some of the best talent, and if you look hard, you are going to find some very well written novels.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism with zombie novels is difficult.  As I have noted before, there are lots of unrealistic disasters that can get you to a collapsed state fairly quickly so that the author can then move on with his apocalyptic story: but to quote myself, "those zombies just keep biting".  Still, as dangerous as the zombies are the bad guys are worse.  The zombies are smart as zombies go, and the bad guys are too.  Prepper Tip! If you don't want the bad guys to track you back to where you live, don't leave the registration in you vehicle!
It is also nice to see a somewhat more nuanced version of the collapse of authority.  The police might not be particularly effective, but they don't all go running for the hills either.  The main character may be overwhelmed with difficulties, but it is a nice change of pace to see someone who has a greater goal than either simple survival, or the conceit of the cozies which has the survivors "building a better new world": now that all the inconvenient folks are gone.  Issues with supplies are not ignored, the fast collapse, and short time frame (30 days) has some useful stuff still around, but most of the easy pickings are gone.  Another fairly realistic zombie novel: a five.
Readability is easy.  At 308 low-word-count pages, it is set up as a page turner.  Each page being a quick turner, and leading into the next action sequence.  A very fast read.  The military jargon is kept to a very low level, enough for credibility, but most folks will have reasonable concept of what he is taking about.  No esoteric, higher-logic symbolism to confuse the issue. It is a seven.
The original cover: the suit - which our hero gives up on pretty quickly is to protect him from the zombie-plague


James M Dakin said...

I'm pretty impressed after the first couple of hours reading. Enough to order the second book to see if the series is worthy. Thanks, Russell.

russell1200 said...

James: I am on the third. The second has a bit of a rap up. The third is a little different. Broader issues and challenges. Some fairly interesting combat sequences. What is interesting is that they are a little mobile, but anything other than bouncing around the adjacent counties (Angier is on the Southern edge of a county) is very hairy.