I was reading a blog post on realism in zombie fiction by Brian Parker, a writer of zombie fiction. Somewhere in the middle of it, he addressed the problem of the Mary Sue in zombie novels:
If you’re like me, you likely roll your eyes at the stereotypical protagonist in zombie fiction. You know the type, it’s some guy or girl—devastatingly handsome or beautiful, but overlooked by the rest of society—who works at a video game store. When the shit hits the fan, they come out of their shell and use their secret level-84 ninja skills to become the unlikely leader who saves their friends and/or family. Everyone in the group is an expert shot and every time they pull the trigger, heads explode. Sound familiar? More on that in a moment. Don’t forget the quintessential part of a typical zombie novel: The main character’s love interest is unattainable before the zombies appear, but once their competition is killed, the guy gets the girl and everyone lives happily ever after.
Luckily for us, there are zombie stories out there that successfully break, or at least subvert, these character and plot cliches. Here are a few worth checking out.
The List by Michele Lee
This is a brief novella that can be read in one sitting, and you’ll want to do that. The story is told in first person by an unsympathetic protagonist with poor social skills who has a lot of built up resentments against the other residents of his apartment building. At the time of the story, he’s been holed up safely for quite some time, and has successfully avoided getting infected by the zombie virus. He is about to emerge and work his way through the building by taking out the now-zombified residents of the building, one at a time, in brutal and gory fashion. Despite the unsympathetic narrator, the voice is fantastic, and there is plenty of dark humor. In the interests of full disclosure, Michele is a reviewer for Monster Librarian and the editor for our companion blog Reading Bites, but that doesn’t affect my recommendation here.
Allison Hewitt Is Trapped by Madeleine Roux
We’ve previously reviewed Allison Hewitt Is Trapped. I’m not going to claim realism here, but I also wouldn’t call Allison a Mary Sue. She’s a graduate student who works in a bookstore (no video games here– each chapter is named for a book) and is trapped in the break room with the rest of the bookstore staff and a couple of customers, with no apparent rescue in sight, blogging about the experience on a miraculously still-existing military Internet network. I find Allison’s ability to wield a fire ax as a deadly weapon, without prior experience, to be unrealistic, but even since its publication in 2011, there aren’t enough books in this subgenre with women who are snarky, resourceful, save themselves, and can strangle their enemy with a laptop cord. The story doesn’t end exactly unhappily for her, but there’s a companion book that takes place many years later, and the zombies still are ravaging pretty much everything, so I wouldn’t say it’s a happy ending either.
Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick
Never be afraid to check out YA fiction– there are some powerful works out there. Ashes is one of these. The main character and narrator is Alex, a teenage girl with terminal brain cancer and considerable camping, hiking, and general survival skills, who decides to run away to the forests of Michigan to spend her last days. While she’s there, an electromagnetic impulse hits, kills millions of people, destroys communications and technology, and turns the majority of children and teenagers into flesh-eating zombies. She is joined by Ellie, a spoiled and obnoxious nine year old who is orphaned early on, and Tom, a soldier she encounters in the forest. Oh my gosh, this is a dark, brutal, and desperate read. Anyone who thinks YA is light and fluffy can think again. I also think it’s a very realistic portrayal. Alex doesn’t suddenly discover she has super survival skills– her skills are a big part of the reason she escapes the EMP in the first place. Tom doesn’t mystically discover he has weapons skills– he’s a trained soldier. And nothing is more realistic than an obnoxious nine year old. This is the first book in a trilogy, and I really recommend it.