A couple of days ago, a reminder popped up in my Kindle App to inform me that an author I follow on Amazon had placed some of their books onto the Kindle Unlimited scheme. For someone who’s on a distinctly limited budget for books these days, and who managed to snag two free months of Kindle Unlimited back in September, this is always a welcome development. But when I saw just who the author was, my attitude went from mild interest to distinct excitement. That’s because it was Camille Picott, an author who I only discovered recently, but I already consider to be one of the new wave of authors rejuvenating the pale, cold, brain-hungry flesh of the zombie apocalypse genre after years of stagnation and decay. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of her first novel Undead Ultra from a Bookfunnel promotion, and I was immediately taken by her unique and refreshing angle to the shambling undead. Based on Picott’s own experience as a veteran runner, the novel focuses on the character of Kate, someone who’s not just a runner or a marathon runner – but an ‘ultrarunner’, someone who runs ultramarathons and knows just how to push her body to the limits to win. As the dead come back to life, she finds herself two hundred miles from her son at his university dorm, and her only chance is to run all the way there. It’s an intense, horrifying and amazingly-written book, and I’ll be reviewing it (and hopefully the rest of the series) on the blog in the future. Today’s review, however, focuses on the new series that Picott has just released, intriguingly titled Zommunist Invasion – and specifically the first book in the on-going series titled Red Virus
Featuring a fantastic piece of cover art that meshes together the Stars and Stripes with the Hammer and Sickle, with decaying, undead hands grasping at both flags, the art and the title give broad hints towards the setting and direction of the novel. It’s the mid-1980s in the United States, one of the peaks of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, and a town in Northern California is suddenly surprised one morning by coaches pulling up into its parks, campuses and public spaces and disgorging cargoes of heavily-armed Soviet soldiers. Panic ensues as the Soviets begin to gun down anyone that they can see, while also securing vital infrastructure and cutting down anyone who tries to resist them; but perhaps even more ominously, many of the Soviets are wielding dart guns, which they use to hit panicking civilians with darts. Those hit with darts are even allowed to flee without being cut down, in turn spreading the strange, rapidly-spreading virus that they’ve been infected with. But this isn’t like your average chemical or biological weapon – not only does it eventually kill those it infects, but they refuse to stay dead and begin preying on anyone with a pulse.
Now I’m a huge fan of the original 1984 version of Red Dawn (not so much the terrible 2012 remake) because it’s such an iconic late-Cold War action film that perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere and paranoia of the United States towards the end of that period. Russian paratroopers suddenly landing throughout the USA, killing or detaining its citizens, and only able to be opposed by a rag-tag band of scrappy high school kids and the guns they can find. It’s a great, fast-paced and action-packed film that’s well worth a watch, even if the wider background plot begins to fall apart the moment you start thinking about it. It’s a scenario ripe for exploitation within the zompoc genre, and one that Picott takes to with gusto – enhancing it not only with the addition of bloodthirsty zombies, but also the sort of in-depth and three-dimensional characterisation you rarely see in the genre. Indeed, it rapidly becomes clear that Picott took the framework of Red Dawn and then decided to systematically improve it, element by individual element. While the main characters within Red Virus start out as little more than the two-dimensional clichés of the kind found within the film – the All-American Football Captain and his Cheerleader ex-girlfriend, and the Farmhand in love with the daughter of his adopted family. However, as the story progresses, Picott deftly broadens and deepens each character’s background and characterisation until, by the mid-point of the novel, they’re actually people you’re engaging with, rather than the flat and forgettable protagonists of most zompoc titles. I won’t go any further into their details to avoid spoilers, but this is perhaps the first time I can think of reviewing zombie apocalypse titles that I’m reading one of them for the characters rather than in spite of them.
Supporting that thoughtful and thought-provoking characterisation is the action – which starts within the first few chapters, grabs you with both hands, and refuses to let up until the very last page. Picott is a master at drawing you into the chaos and confusion of the first minutes and hours of the Soviet invasion, with bullets and darts flying everywhere, with the cocky, arrogant and heavily-armed Soviets acting as superb antagonists. It’s also a very streamlined and lean plot as it moves from scene to scene – there’s no padding or filler, so often the cause of bloating within the genre as authors stretch paragraphs into chapters, and chapters into novels. Picott’s focus is on moving the plot along with a relentless intensity and attention to detail, something I cannot highlight strongly enough as a veteran of the genre as a whole. In addition – and at this point, to be expected given the skill and passion Picott has clearly poured into this series – the zombies themselves are more than the usual flesh-obsessed fodder to be found in Picott’s competitors. The progression of the virus is suitably and effectively described in unsettling detail, and the end result is both effective – Picott certainly gets zombies – and unusual. These undead have a few elements of note that I haven’t seen in the genre before, and while they soon begin to outnumber the living, they do have some additional weaknesses that make things at least a little less unbalanced for our band of plucky protagonists. I’m most definitely curious to see if these are early hints by Picott that this particular strain of undead are going to be a different breed than the usual generic zombies to be found within the genre.
Superbly written, action-packed and populated with a cast of sympathetic and engaging characters that immediately stand out as superior to those usually found in the genre, Red Virus (Zommunist Invasion Book I) is another first-rate zombie story from Camille Picott, and yet more proof that she is a fresh and exciting new voice in the zombie apocalypse genre. I cannot wait to get my hands on the next title in the series, due for release in December 2020, and I can guarantee that I will be reviewing it on this blog when it comes out. If you’re a fan of smart, intelligently-written and action-packed zombie tales – then look no further than anything written by Camille Picott.