H.E. Goodhue’s Zombie Youth: Playground Politics is your typical zombie story in a lot of ways. People die suddenly, and then get back up and try to feast on the flesh of the living. They can be killed by destroying their brain. However, the book has a nice hook: all of the initial batch of zombies are adults, many of whom die suddenly of some unexplained outbreak. Some are spared, but not a lot, and we never quite get a handle of how the disease spreads. This leaves the story in the hands of kids, not unlike the series Jeremiah.
This might not seem like to big a deal – after all, most zombie stories try to put some sort of spin on something to set them apart from the crowd – but it gives the story a fresh perspective and and interesting narrative voice. In the way of comparisons, I would say Zombie Youth is Dawn of the Dead (original) meets Degrassi Junior High (a Canadian series, which was quite good for its time), and I say that with the highest compliments. That means in between crushing zombie skulls, you get loads of teenage angst and drama.
It works surprisingly well.
The cast of characters is fairly sizeable, which can be tough at the beginning. It took me quite a while to get everyone sorted out, and it took a few of the characters some time to really develop their voices. A couple characters were fairly one-note, like the clever kid who learned all sorts of obscure-but-useful information from the internet. Most of the others are more nuanced.
One thing I really dug about the book was that the characters, while primarily kids around the same age, was fairly diverse. You get kids from different social and financial casts, with different temperaments, and different ways of dealing with the incredible stress of suddenly being an orphan in the zombie apocalypse. Buttressing the primary characters were a number of adults. At the beginning, this was all school staffers, but eventually they meet the remains of a group of National Guard soldiers. Like the children, the adults are diverse and well developed, although it did feel like more of them were knowledgeable about zombies than really should have been.
The zombies are fairly typical, with one exception (more on that in a bit), but the author finds some cool ways to put a twist on the old standby. For instance, early in the story we meet a bunch of zombies that, when attacking someone, inadvertently get all tangled up in intestines and bound together. The result is a giant, awful zombie rat king. That’s a damn good monster.
And that exception? Well it seems like, every now and then, a person zombifies into a much more capable zombie. They’re faster, stronger, and significantly more alert. It doesn’t take the survivors long to learn they need to be targeted immediately.
Of course, like most zombie stories, the zombies aren’t the real problem in Zombie Youth. The primary villain comes in the form of a doomsday cult who take their inspiration from The Book of Revelation and view the zombies as sacred messengers from God. I’m a little on the fence about these guys. I like them as villains, but I felt like they got big and powerful far too early into the zombie apocalypse to really make sense. Of course a lot of these people were likely already members of the church, and things just got more extreme once the zombies showed up, but their development still felt a bit rushed to me.
Baring a couple minor complaints, I really enjoyed Zombie Youth. It set out to do something a little bit different with the genre, and I think it accomplished that goal with aplomb.