A teenage take on The Walking Dead blissfully free from that franchise’s most mercenary elements, The Garden of Darkness is an astonishingly good debut about a cheerleader and a chess club member’s struggle to survive absent adults in a landscape ravaged by the Pest pandemic.
Though they went to school together way back when, the odd couple we quickly come to care about only really meet a matter of months after Pest lays waste to the world as we know it, killing all the afflicted adults and sentencing every single survivor to death at the onset of adolescence.
Clare knew she was infected with Pest—the rash was enough to prove that. She knew that she was going to die of it, too. Eventually. She might even have a couple of years left, but, according to the scientists, she wasn’t going to live to adulthood. […] In its own weird way, Clare thought the link between Pest and adolescence sounded logical. Adolescence had always been a bag of goodies: complexion problems, mood swings, unrequited love and now, Pest.
Clare is The Garden of Darkness’ canny protagonist: a popular girl, before Pest, pretty and witty as well. She was the envy of everyone, once. Now she’s nothing. “Everything that told her who she was—the intricate web of friendships and family that had cradled her—was gone. She could be anyone.” Instead, in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, she remains so preoccupied with the past—with thoughts of her lost quarterback boyfriend—that she nearly dies of disease, hunger, sheer idiocy even, on any number of occasions.
To her credit, Clare does manage to make a friend in Bear, a big dog that bonds with her at the very beginning of the book, and shares his kills with her subsequently. Sadly, no amount of second-hand rabbit can keep her healthy, so when she stumbles upon Jem—a nerd who has nevertheless managed to take care of himself, plus a pair of orphans, despite being fully two years Clare’s junior—she allies with him at once.
At first, their partnership is purely practical, but after weeks of watching one another’s backs whilst scavenging for supplies, a cautious friendship forms; a friendship strengthened by their impromptu parenting of Mirri and Sarai. When winter sets in, the four are family, after a fashion, but with “time’s winged chariot hurrying near” and supplies suddenly scarce in the nearby area, they have no choice but to hit the road… which has a sort of hypnotic effect on Clare:
She felt as if she were shedding parts of herself as she walked—the cheerleader, the princess of the spring dance, the gymnast who practiced back flips on her front lawn. All aspects were peeling away to reveal a hard core of being that she wasn’t sure she recognised.
Readers will recognise her, however. By the end of The Garden of Darkness, Clare has changed in many ways—she’s had to make many difficult decisions and admit a few of her former glories are failings today—but, brilliantly, she’s still the same sweetheart we fell for at the start: a daddy’s girl prone to looking for beauty in the least likely places and quoting ee cummings at appropriate moments.
Jem isn’t as extensively developed over the course of Gillian Murray Kendall’s debut, but he’s a fascinating character from the first: a nerd-do-well fast to adapt to the particular problems of the Pestpocalyse, it’s easy to forget that he has also lost a lot—if not Clare’s popularity then his parents and peers, not to mention his place in a presumed future he’ll never know now.
That is, unless there’s a cure for Pest. And one man, the self-styled “master of the situation,” promises exactly that. He’s the last adult alive, and he offers safety—sanctuary, after a fashion—to any kids who come to his cultish camp, which just so happens to be where Clare and Jem are headed, unaware as they are of the danger there:
Questions undermined authority, and authority was something he had sought all his life, attained, revelled in. He had been a leader in his field, a recognised pioneer who had, right before Sitka AZ13 rendered such things meaningless, received the MacArthur Fellowship. But this would convey nothing to the majority of the children. He had to earn his authority in other ways now.
If I had to identify an issue with The Garden of Darkness, it’s this: the overbearing characterisation of the Master. There is something unsubtly off about him from the offing—would that Kendall had played her cards closer to her chest—and at the end, the Master is such a monster that he comes across as cartoonish. Between this and a certain other development, the book’s conclusion is, alas, a little lacklustre.
Be that as it may, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the remainder. The children’s crusade at the heart of The Garden of Darkness is absolutely remarkable. It pains me that I can’t say the same about the destination, but Clare and Jem’s journey—as characters and as regards the narrative—is both chilling and thrilling, and as cruel as it is finally kind.
The Garden of Darkness is published by Ravenstone. It is available now in the US and publishes July 3rd in the UK.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.