The Enemy by Charlie Higson. Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of Disney Book Group. Publication date May 2010. UK Book Website. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.
The Plot: Months ago, a deadly disease hit the world. Everyone over sixteen was affected, turning them into animal-like creatures who crave human flesh. Yes, you got it -- it's a grown-up-eat-kids world. Somehow, handfuls of children do survive the terror of seeing their parents die...or worse. Of seeing their siblings and friends taken and eaten by terrifying grown-ups. Food is running out, no medical supplies turns scratches into deadly injuries, hope is dying. Until someone appears -- telling of a utopia for children. A place where kids keep the grown ups far enough away to have some semblance of safety, where kids are growing their own food instead of scavenging for old tins. A safe haven... but first, the kids have to travel through the dangerous, adult infested city to get there.
The Good: Zombies! Zombie parents who eat their young! It's a zombified The Girl Who Owned a City! And even better -- at one point a character corrects us. It's not zombies because the adults didn't die and they can be killed by any traditional killing-a-person methods. Rather, the adults got sick (with a side effect that they look zombie like, decomposing flesh, broken bones, etc.), lost memory/humanity, and now want to eat human flesh. But they didn't die and then come back from the dead. So, not zombies.
Ahem. OK, so if you are into zombies, you want this book. If you are into "all the adults die, now what do the kids do" books, you want this book.
Now that the short version is out of the way, for the rest of you.
Higson is gritty and violent and scary. On the first page, a little kid gets taken by adults, thrown in a sack to be eaten later. And it's all downhill from there. If you want to be scared? Read this book.
A bunch of kids have turned a food-store (the Waitrose) into a headquarters, keeping the grown ups out, going on scavenging missions for food. (BTW, this is set in London; had it been set in the US, the kids would have been in Wegmans, I'm sure). Another group of kids is headquartered in Morrisons (say, a Food Town). Quasi enemies, because both groups want the same limited resources (canned foods in abandoned houses, haunted by diseased adults). One day, a young teen survivor shows up, saying Buckingham Palace (?!?!) is the promised land of safety and food. The Waitrose crew and the Morrisons team up to fight their way across London.
OF COURSE it isn't going to be easy! OF COURSE nothing is as it seems! OF COURSE every time it seems like its going to be OK it just gets worse!
Want to know what is terrific? One kid who is totally set up as a main character -- is killed halfway. I mean, in a book like this you know kids will die. And they do. But you don't think it's going to be one of the main freaking characters. And not so early in the book! What that tells you -- nothing is safe. No one is safe. "Safe" is just a word.
So, Higson delivers the most important thing with a story like The Enemy. It is scary; the reader is left breathless; it is uputdownable. He also has a terrific metaphor, that of adults eating their own young. What makes this even better is the cast of nuanced characters -- a quite large cast, actually, because there are quite a few storylines. So even better that each person (Sam, Arran, Achilleas, Ollie, Maxie, Blue) is fully drawn. With just a few lines (because with this cast and the nonstop action Higson only has time for a few lines), Higson portrays a real kid.
"The world is over, what next" doesn't appeal to some readers; for others of us (me! me! me!) I love the idea of it. No, I don't want the world to end! But what happens when the world as you know it does? Who becomes the leaders? Is the soccer player the best person to run things? Or is it the quiet kid who played a lot of World of Warcraft? Do you create a fortress? Do you move constantly, always looking for someplace safe? When it all comes tumbling down, do you take care of yourself or others? The Enemy looks at all of this -- using kids and young teens.
There are shifting alliances, various motivations, and one common goal: survival. One semi amusing point is that both adults and kids are constantly hunting for food, and risking their own lives for food. It's just for adults, the kids ARE the food.
And as for the zombies... Higson throws out some clues about them. What, we wonder, happens to the kids once they reach sixteen? What is it that made some diseased adults into flesh eaters, and others into, well, vacant shells of who they once were? What (arg spoiler I won't say it, I won't). Just be rest assured, Higson doesn't just use "and the grown ups got a disease, the end".
What else do I want you to know? In reading this, I was reminded of Stephen King at his best, in The Stand. Unlike King, The Enemy is straightforward horror, in a science fiction vein. No myth, no supernatural monsters, no magical elements.
Yes, this is going on my Favorites of 2010 List (see sidebar).
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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy