Whether it’s a character that captures us or a narrative that enraptures us, a situation that speaks to something unspoken or a conflict that builds on something broken—who can say, on this or any other day, what makes a book a bestseller? The quality of a given novel has next to nothing to do with its success on store shelves, that’s for sure. Plenty of bad books have shifted millions, and many more deserving efforts have come and gone to no such notice. It’s a blessing, then, when a truly wonderful work of fiction becomes a bestseller… but it can also be a burden.
The Girl With all the Gifts was probably the best zombie novel to have been released in recent years, and it sold hella well—well enough to spawn a movie that was also pretty swell. But while the next book to bear M. R. Carey’s name was a dark delight in its own right, Fellside didn’t catch on in the same way, I’m afraid.
To wit, I wasn’t entirely surprised when I heard that Carey’s new novel was a sidequel of sorts to The Girl With all the Gifts. I was, however, concerned; concerned that setting a second story in the same world that Melanie and Miss Justineau so wholly inhabited ran the risk of diminishing their devastating adventures. Happily, The Boy on the Bridge bears its burden brilliantly, and I can only hope it’s as blessed by the book-buying public as its predecessor.
It is, admittedly, a little derivative. And I don’t just mean that it tugs on many of the same heartstrings The Girl With all the Gifts did—though it does, ultimately: The Boy on the Bridge is an equally bleak book, and equally beautiful, too. But that’s not it either. I’m talking about the plot, which is, at least initially, almost a mirror image of its predecessor’s: it’s an apocalyptic road story about the relationship between a teacher and her unusual student.
Instead of Miss Justineau, The Boy on the Bridge gives us Dr Samrina Khan, an optimistic epidemiologist:
Khan maintains a stubborn belief in the future—in the fact that there is going to be one—but sometimes the present daunts and defeats her. There used to be a world in which things made some kind of sense, had some kind of permanence. But the human race put that world down somewhere, left it carelessly behind, and now nobody can find it again or reconstitute it. Entropy is increasing. In her own affairs, too.
Rina is one of twelve members of a desperate expedition out of Beacon, the last bastion of humanity in a Great Britain already ravaged by a virus that turned everyone and their mothers’ brothers into hungries—so-called because of their insatiable appetite for the very freshest flesh. “Recent events [such as] the collapse of global civilisation and the near-extinction of the human species” mean that Rina and the men and women with her have a pivotal mission: to retrace the trail of “their dead predecessors” who, before they were ambushed by gangs of scavengers, scattered caches of Cordyceps cultures in a miscellany of climates and conditions, the better to see whether these various vectors have any impact on the aforementioned pathogen.
The hope is that one of the recovered caches will contain the crucial element of a cure, and if any member of the expedition is in a position to put the pieces of this puzzle together, it’s Rina’s charge, Stephen Reaves. As the sole survivor of an outbreak that left him orphaned, it’s no wonder that he works differently than most folks. “The general feeling now is that Greaves is on the autistic spectrum, but how much of his weirdness is down to his brain’s basic wiring and how much of it is a trauma artefact? […] It’s an academic question, but it’s got real-world consequences” now that, thanks to teacher, he’s on Rosie’s short roster.
Rosie, by the by, is the Rosalind Franklin, the rolling refuge last glimpsed in The Girl With all the Gifts:
By any name, Rosie is the bastard child of an articulated lorry and a Chieftain tank. Her front end is adorned with a V-shaped steel battering ram designed to function like a cow-catcher on an ancient steam train. On her roof, a field pounder and a flamethrower share a single broad turret. Inch-thick plate sheathes her sides, and broad black treads her underbelly. There is nothing in this post-lapsarian world that she can’t roll over, burn through or blow the hell apart.
Nothing other than the problems of the twelve people riding her, right? And no one more so, given how big a deal regulations have become in Rosie’s tight confines, than Rina’s regulation-breaking pregnancy. There’s also the fact that the expedition has two commanders who are working at cross purposes, compromising not just the individuals aboard Rosie but a mission that might be all that stands between humanity’s survival and its imminent extinction—a mission that only starts to feel real when Stephen chances upon some children that are neither human nor hungry and realises they might be the key to a cure:
The prospect of a cure for the hungry pathogen has become remote. Cordyceps grows into and through nerve tissue so quickly that there is no way of eradicating it without destroying the host’s nervous system. A ‘cure’ like that might get you a clean bill of health but you’d be a quadriplegic vegetable. But if Greaves is right about the children—and if he gets some samples to work with—he might be able to produce a vaccine that mediates or even negates the pathogen’s effects.
Thus, the fate of the human race is seemingly at stake, but as a prequel, primarily, The Boy on the Bridge is beholden to the cruel and unusual twists of The Girl With All the Gifts. Anyone who knows how that story unfolds—as anyone reading this book should do, to be sure—already knows what happens to humanity writ large. But what about humanity writ little? What about Stephen and Rina and her unborn baby? That’s a whole other story. That, indeed, is The Boy on The Bridge‘s story: a more emotional affair than The Girl With all the Gifts from the first.
Carey’s interest in the intimate as opposed to the abstract of a conditional cure for Cordyceps is what give The Boy on the Bridge wings. Able to take centre stage, its central characters shine as bright as you might like, and their relationship takes flight. Yet it’s tested, too. This is the end of the world, after all. Difficult things must be done, and a few little lies are the least of it. Weighty betrayals abound, and in time, this tale takes in several truly tragic sacrifices. “But the logic that is operating here is not a simple, linear one. Guilt and innocence are tangled up in each other, elided,” making it that much harder for us to judge any one character’s actions too harshly.
There will of course be those who dismiss Carey’s new novel as opportunistic—as a surplus-to-requirements sidequel written not out of narrative necessity, but because it’s almost certain to sell. And it’s true that if you want to go back to the well, you had better have a worthwhile tale to tell: something of substantial value to add to a story so boldly told. The Boy on the Bridge does, ultimately. Despite a plot that hones too closely to The Girl With all the Gifts’ to begin with, by leaving aside the large to focus on the little, The Boy on the Bridge eventually earns out its sterling heritage. It’s a worthy successor to one of the best zombie novels in memory.
The Boy on the Bridge is available from Orbit.
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 lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.