I would never have picked up Jonathan Maberry's Rot & Ruin on my own. Even though I've heard a lot of hype about it, zombie books are just not my thing. In fact, zombies in general are Not My Thing. Much to my husband's disappointment, I have not joined him in watching a single episode of "The Walking Dead."
However, the teen summer reading theme this year is "Spark A Reaction," and I decided to go with a couple of zombie-themed weeks to play off the idea of "Spark of Life." We played Humans vs. Zombies on the library lawn, had a teen movie night featuring Warm Bodies, and put together a pretty cool display of zombie-themed books and movies. So naturally, it made sense for my teen book club to read a zombie book during this time frame. I narrowed the choices to Rot & Ruin, Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. They voted for Rot & Ruin, so I got reading.
The post-apocalyptic story centers around Benny Imura, a teenager who needs to find a job in order to keep his rations, and his older brother Tom, a renowned zombie hunter. Benny utterly hates Tom because he thinks he is a coward. This dates back to his very earliest memory, from when he was less than 2 years old and Tom rescued him from their parents, who had turned into zombies (as had the majority of the rest of the world, apparently). So in spite of owing his life (and his entire existence since then) to Tom, Benny is convinced that Tom is a coward and completely hates him..... I was never clear on exactly how he could justify feeling this way, since it made basically no sense, except in a pissed-off teenage boy "I hate the world" kind of way. But just roll with it.
Benny also basically hero-worshiped two other zombie hunters, Charlie and the Hammer, who have both gotten rich by killing more "zoms" than anybody can count and spend days regaling the townspeople the stories of their violent conquests. It is quite clear to any impartial observer that these guys are No Good, but it seems that Benny has to figure that out for himself.... which he does about halfway through the book, when Charlie starts murdering everyone near and dear to him, all because Benny wouldn't hand over a zombie card (think baseball card, but with pictures of zombie hunters) with a picture of the Lost Girl on it.
The Lost Girl is an an enigma who lives out somewhere in the Rot and Ruin (all of the "uncivilized," zombie-filled area outside the town), a kind of wild thing who has been known to take down dozens of zombies and human men alike. It seems that the source of much of her angst (as if being surrounded by zombies isn't enough?) is that Charlie and the Hammer abducted her at a young age and forced her to fight for her life at Gameland, where really sick and twisted humans can bet money on the outcome of child vs. zombie fights. She managed to escape, but her little sister wasn't so lucky.... So now she lives in the wild, seeking revenge. And yet somehow merely seeing her picture on a zombie card incites Charlie to such rage that he goes on a killing spree with the Imura family as his targets. Again, not quite following the logic, but rolling with it.
Into this mess, throw Nix Riley, a teenage girl that Benny is JUST FRIENDS with. We know that they are JUST FRIENDS because in spite of her declaring her undying love for him, he is Not Interested. And yet he spends a great deal of timing noticing how well her t-shirt fits her. Ahem. But then Charlie abducts her, so Tom and Benny ride off into the Rot and Ruin to rescue Nix. And surprise! It seems that Benny had more-than-platonic feelings for her after all.
"But what about the zombies?" you say. "Isn't this a zombie book?" Oh yes. The zoms surround everything and everyone is deeply afraid of them. Yet they are completely mindless and, it seems, easy eluded. At least by Tom, who is a Zombie Ninja Master. Tom also spends a great portion of the novel explaining to Benny how he (and everyone else) has been wrong about the zoms for all their lives--they're not scary, they're not really dangerous, they are really just sad, depressing remnants of what were once human beings and deserve to be treated with respect. Okay, I'll buy that. Sort of.
So even though this was a zombie book, the zoms were far more pathetic than scary. It was the humans that were the Real Monsters. And this, children, is the Moral of the Story. Which was repeated several times, in case we missed it the first time around.
The zombies are flat, one-dimensional characters incapable for growth.... and so is pretty much everyone else in this story. Everyone in this book seemed like a caricature of an actual character. Tom is The Good Zombie Hunter, who is noble and true to his purpose even though no one understands him. Charlie and the Hammer are The Bad Guys, motivated by greed and their own evil. The Lost Girl is the Tragic Heroine. Nix is The Friend-Turned-Love-Interest. Ugh.
In short, I would not have read this book if it hadn't been for my teen book club. And in end, guess what..... none of them read it either! At most, they only made it halfway through. So this one does NOT make my recommendation list.