Most zombie stories like to work under the idea that zombies are a concept no one is aware of. In their universe, Night of the Living Dead never happened, there is no underlying cultural consciousness of zombies and how to deal with them, and Max Brooks certainly never wrote a detailed guide for surviving the zombie apocalypse. It’s a pretty simple conceit to make sure the characters are caught completely unawares, and have to actually work to figure out how to defeat their undead enemy. The problem is, it’s all a bit overdone.
Roads Less Traveled: The Plan takes the opposite approach. Not only do zombie flicks exist in its universe and people are acutely aware of them, some characters have actually thought out detailed plans to survive the (inevitable) zombie apocalypse. In fact, one character even acknowledged that George Romero was correct in making his zombies slow while others watch a bit of Dawn of the Dead to kill time in the evening. In keeping with the characters’ unusual ability to recognize zombies, some also recognize and comment on other horror tropes, which adds a bit of levity to certain sections of the story.
Despite having a zombie survival plan, the characters in Roads Less Traveled still have their work cut out for them. Any plan, no matter how well conceived, is going to have flaws somewhere; generally these present themselves when people don’t react the way they “should”. Right off the bat, our heroes are thrown a curve ball when more people than they expected tag along to the zombie survival oasis that is Kasey’s (the main character) remote West Virginia farmhouse. Those additional people call for everything from more vehicles for transportation to more opportunities for personality clashes. As one would expect from a zombie story, there’s a bit of attrition along the way, but the extra load is still something that affects Kasey and her friends throughout the novel.
Roads Less Traveled has an interesting structure. In its first act, perspective shifts between Kasey’s first person accounts, to a third-person account for all the other characters. There’s an every-other-chapter switch off for a while – up until the characters all meet up – and then the perspective shifts occur a bit more organically. It took a little getting used to, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. We got to know Kasey a lot more intimately than the other characters, and she helped to be a sort of anchor for the novel.
Much like the perspective shifts, the book tends to cut back and forth between more muted scenes of preparation and mentally dealing with the zombie outbreak, to scenes of pure action. This oscillation between action and more cerebral activities works quite well, and it doesn’t take long before Roads Less Traveled finds a nice rhythm. The action scenes tend to be fun, and appropriately over-the-top. Everything else is much more practical; we see what people (primarily Kasey) are doing to prepare and learn why they’re doing it. We also get a chance to get into their heads a bit, and see a lot of the psychological battle with the undead that’s normally glossed over in zombie stories. Some of this works quite well, but a few scenes (like Kasey’s bizarre hallucination of zombies near the beginning of the novel) seem to be there because they’re thought provoking instead of working well with the character and situation.
And speaking of Kasey, I thought it was extremely interesting to have a female protagonist in what is typically a male-dominated genre. The fact that the writer, C Dulaney, is also a woman helped make the character and her struggles seem more realistic and better thought through (not that men can’t write good female characters, of course). Kasey is a good main character because she’s smart and resourceful, while also having a few weaknesses – such as dealing with people – that help to balance her. Sure, she’s occasionally a badass superwoman in the action-oriented parts of the novel, but she’s generally pretty grounded.
While writing throughout Roads Less Traveled is generally good, there are a couple one-dimensional characters and the author does tend to overwrite a lot of descriptions (an easy trap to fall into, and one I’ve made many, many times). Dulaney also has an interesting tick of name checking things, particularly name brands of products being used and very specific geographic terms, including the names of town and streets. I think readers familiar with the area in which the novel is set will have fun mapping out where the action is taking place. I would also note that the ending seemed a bit rushed, but since this is the first part of a planned trilogy, that’s pretty understandable.
Roads Less Traveled: The Plan is a fun, quick read. Kasey is a interesting main character who draws support from a largely rich supporting cast. I’m interested to see where the story goes next.
Roads Less Traveled: The Plan is published by Permuted Press, an industry leader in zombie and post-apocalyptic literature.