Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
Warm Bodies #1
Emily Bestler Books/Atria 2011 (2010)
Speculative Fiction; Horror; Science Fiction; Apocalyptic Fiction
R is a zombie. The only thing he remembers from his pre-zombie life is that his name starts with “R”. Looking at his clothes – a white shirt and a red tie – he guesses he was some young professional, early twenties, with an office job. And he has plenty of time to think about things, even if he can’t articulate them. He lives with hundreds, maybe thousands of other zombies at the airport, and made his own home in a 747 at gate 12. It’s crammed full of piles of things he’s collected from hunting trips into the city, including an impressive collection of vinyl that he plays on a turntable. The city itself is in ruins, with the last of humanity holed up inside the big stadiums which have been converted into rickety towns. While there are still some humans holed up in abandoned houses and other buildings here and there, the only other people out and about are survivors from the stadium on stockpiling missions.
It’s on one of the zombie’s hunting trips into the city for food that R meets a girl and everything changes. The zombies smell a group of humans inside a building on one of these stockpiling trips, and attack. R rips into one young man and eating his brain takes him deep into his victim’s life and memories, most of which are taken up with a pretty young girl, Julie. And Julie is here, she’s hiding under the table, and to save her life R pretends he’s converted her. In shock, Julie goes with R and the other zombies back to the airport and into his 747, where she slowly learns that R is different from the mindless zombies that fill the airport, and that he has no intention, no interest, in eating her.
But a 747 amidst a horde of zombies is no place for a human. Yet Julie’s presence – and R’s defence of her – sends shockwaves throughout the zombies. R isn’t the only one who starts to feel new things, and the ripples of change upset the skeletal “Boneys”, the zombies who no longer resemble humans, who seem to have their own agenda. It will take a drastic change in thinking among both humans and zombies to save the world from impending – and very final – doom.
Marion’s debut novel is a real gem. Unique, amusing, thought-provoking and engaging, Warm Bodies is far from your typical zombie novel. It adheres to standard zombie tropes: these are inhuman, dead-looking things, jerky, awkward, slow but deadly, who love to eat brains (it gives them a kind of high and they can absorb their victim’s memories when the brain is fresh) and whose bite means not just death but resurrection of the worst kind. But from this traditional foundation, the story takes off in a fresh new direction.
The main distinction, from the beginning, is R himself, our narrator. He is thoughtful, questioning, philosophical, and you get a real sense of a live human trapped inside a zombie, numb but cognisant. He is one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve read in a long time, especially considering he’s basically an alien. Marion does a superb job of capturing both his lingering flicker of humanity – a flicker that catches when he sees Julie for the first time – and his zombie-ness, with no apologies.
I don’t know why we have to kill people. I don’t know what chewing through a man’s neck accomplishes. I steal what he has to replace what I lack. He disappears, and I stay. It’s simple but senseless, arbitrary laws from some lunatic legislator in the sky. But following those laws keeps me walking, so I follow them to the letter. I eat until I stop eating, then I eat again.
How did it start? How did we become what we are? Was it some mysterious virus? Gamma rays? An ancient curse? Or something even more absurd? No one talks about it much. We are here and this is the way it is. We don’t complain. We don’t ask questions. We go about our business.
There is a chasm between me and the world outside of me. A gap so wide my feelings can’t cross it. By the time my screams reach the other side, they have dwindled into groans. [p.8]
Seventeen-year-old Julie, only child of a general, is also a strong character. Rebellious and spirited with a penchant for swearing, she’s the perfect person to join forces with R. Brave and intelligent, her initial fear fades in light of new evidence; she has a zest for life that she recognises within R. But she’s also had a shitty life to date, and has treated her body poorly with incidents of money for sex and attempted suicide. No one else could have seen past R’s zombie condition to the inner, um, zombie, but Julie.
There are some great lines in here that I really loved, descriptions and ideas that were free of the usual cliches. The writing is smooth and polished, and there were some really clever or beautiful lines slipped in that take you pleasantly by surprise.
One of [the Boneys] steps forward and stops in front of me, inches from my face. No breath wafts from its hollow mouth, but I can feel a faint, low hum emanating from its bones. This hum is not found in me, nor in M, nor in any of the other fleshclad Dead, and I begin to wonder what exactly these dried-up creatures really are. I can no longer believe in any voodoo spell or laboratory virus. This is something deeper, darker. This comes from the cosmos, from the stars, or the unknown blackness behind them. The shadows in God’s boarded-up basement. [p.67]
In terms of world-building, this is a fantastic apocalyptic setting, with enough details given to really flesh it out without over-doing it. The world was going to shit even before the zombies started cropping up, which ties into the theory behind the zombie curse. There was something, and maybe I misread it, that implied people were turning into zombies without being actually bitten by one. This world is in ruins, crumbling and being reclaimed by nature. The interior of the stadium was a little tricky for me to picture, but I still had a good idea of the makeshift community built tall and skinny and held up by cables. I felt almost claustrophobic when the story shifted to this world-within-a-world. One of the interesting parallels that Marion plays with is the contrast between the humans in charge, and the skeletons, the Boneys, neither of which really wants anything to change and whose minds are closed to anything but their own basic survival.
Regarding the plot, I have to say two things: one, I loved the set-up and meeting R (the blurb describes him as having an existential no-life crisis, which I love) and then meeting Julie, but once the plot moved on to inside the stadium and so on, it rather lacked lustre for me; and two, the ending didn’t quite live up to the promise of the beginning. That is to say, it did in terms of where the plot goes and the resolution, but how it comes about was a tad disappointing. I think what happens is that, once the mystery and the wonder of learning about a new world has worn off, it all becomes a bit mundane. It was a fairly exciting ending, but as another reviewer put it, it lacked “oomph”, especially considering the build-up.
That said, I did love the speculative side of this novel, the idea R develops as to where the zombie curse comes from – it’s surprisingly simple and tidy, and works perfectly because of it. This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed this book so much even though I don’t like zombie stories. I find zombies incredibly boring because they are mindless, you can’t hold a conversation with them, and their very existence is not only terrifying, it’s extraordinarily depressing. You can’t win against zombies, so the zombie movies I’ve watched and the rare book I’ve read always carry this fatalistic tone, because you can never escape, your fate is sealed, humanity is doomed. That is the traditional storyline for zombies, and many people love it. Even though I love stories that deal with humans struggling to survive against extreme circumstances, for example, the fatalistic, depressing, pessimistic nature of zombie stories always turns me off. They’re just plain boring.
Warm Bodies is the perfect story for the reader who doesn’t like zombies or zombie stories. It offers a fresh perspective and a sense of wonder, a new discovery of life, and yes, hope. R is a fantastic hero and a strong narrator and the story is deeply compelling, especially because of its examination of the human condition and the idea of a sickness inside us caused by the world we’ve created but which is like a poison to us. Love it. The romantic love story isn’t in the forefront – it drives the plot and the shiver of change in this world, but it’s no sappy, cloying romance, and since R is Dead, he feels no real emotions, only something that’s more like a compulsion that he just has to follow. Warm Bodies crosses genres as easily as it crosses its readership’s gender lines, though make no mistake: this is adult fiction. While I read this as a standalone novel, Marion is working on a sequel and there are prequel novellas you can read as well if you want more of this unique world.
“No zombie awareness, please. No falling in love, no adopting families in zombie world or grunting talk with other zombies. That defeats the whole point of zombiesssssss. Also, no ridiculous theories on how the zombies were created, it takes all the subtlety out of zombie stories! So I disliked the book. I do think it might make a cute fun comedy a la zombieland, though.” My Friend Amy
“Warm Bodies was action-packed and it was really funny. You may think that this book is just a gory zombie book, though it’s so much more than that. It is kind of like a futuristic love story with funniness.” Downright Dystopian
“Warm Bodies will show you a side of zombies you’ve never seen before. Read it because it’s unique in all the right ways: it’s got a unique protagonist, unique narration, and a unique take on the entire zombie mythos. On the surface, these are zombies as you know them already—mindless, shambling creatures who hunger for brains—but R is something more. And he makes something more of the rest of them.” The Ranting Dragon
“This is a beautiful novel. … the quiet, insightful writing really impressed me, and overall, I felt rewarded and oddly touched after finishing Warm Bodies.” Angieville
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