Snipers (Zommunist Invasion Book 2)
I’m grateful to author Camille Picott for kindly providing an advanced review copy of her latest novel prior to its publication at the end of 2020. This is Snipers, the second book in her new zombie apocalypse series, the delightfully-named Zommunist Invasion and which, as that unusual portmanteau suggests, involves both the Soviet Union and the undead. Set in the mid-1980s at the height of the late period of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States, the first novel in the series, Red Virus, opened with a small town in Northern California suddenly waking up to the appearance of soldiers in the uniform of the Soviet Union throughout the town, who proceeded to kill and main hundreds of people and occupying the town and the surrounding area. It soon becomes clear that this is far from an isolated incident, and is in fact being replicated across the continental United States. So far, so familiar – the United States being invaded by a foreign power is an incredibly common scenario in prepper and post-apocalyptic fiction, and frankly one that’s rapidly become stale and boring. There are only so many novels you can read where a lantern-jawed veteran or law enforcement officer leads a ragtag resistance against the occupiers before they all start to blend together and turn into a bland mush.
However, what I rapidly discovered as I read through that first novel in the series is that Picott has taken this stale and unoriginal scenario and completely revitalised it through the introduction of the living dead, engaging and three-dimensional characters, and a relentless and energetic plot that takes cues from 1980s war film and Red Scare classic Red Dawn, while adding her own distinct flair and imagination to create a distinctive and utterly compulsive read. By the end of Red Virus, a group of teenagers and a few adults had created a nascent resistance cell in the hills and farms on the outskirts of their town, and were determined to fight back against the Soviet occupiers and the frankly terrifying version of the undead that Picott has come up with. I thought that the plot had a huge amount of potential, particularly as she had seeded a number of intriguing concepts and plot points, and I was curious to see where she would take it. Would Picott be able to maintain the momentum of the first novel, while also expanding on the plot and background details that she had broadly sketched out, and retaining that unsettling and terrifying atmosphere that pervaded the novel thanks to Picott’s unique take on the undead? It was a lot of plates to keep spinning on poles all at once, but I was confident that Picott could do it – especially considering how much I’d enjoyed her first set of zombie novels, the excellent Undead Ultra series.
Snipers opens with the Soviet-Zombie invasion in full swing, isolated families being picked off and infected by this strange breed of undead, while small bands of harried survivors try and figure out how to keep breathing while avoiding the zombies and the Soviets who created the creatures. One such group consists of three chess team players – Cassie, Amanda and Stephenson. Crammed into a tiny house and besieged by the undead gathering outside, they also have to contend with the only two adults in the house being bitten and locked into a bedroom with only a flimsy door and improvised barricade between the two groups. Fortunately for Cassie, the gallant band of patriotic teenagers from Red Virus includes her big sister Jennifer, who is determined to rescue Cassie; she’s assisted in this by her friends, as well as ex-boyfriend Leo, the leader of the band resisting the Soviet occupation. As well as trying to mount a rescue operation, the guerrilla group must contend with the ever-present undead presence, including some unwelcome developments in the zombies themselves, and the terrifying fact that the initial invasion is now becoming an occupation – complete with the dreaded KGB beginning to turn up in California, and even the potential for Soviet civilians to arrive in a twisted reflection of the migration that led to the formation of the state in the 19th Century. It’s an incredible melange of plot points to integrate into a novel, and in the hands of a less talented author it could easily have been a messy, unengaging plot; fortunately, Picott is more than up to the challenge. Indeed, Picott expertly ratchets up the tension in Snipers by making it clear that survival is no longer a sufficient goal for Leo, Jennifer and their friends – armed resistance is now the only option against the Soviets and their plans for the occupied United States. Again, Picott is loosely following the template set by Red Dawn, but continues to expand and innovate in order to ensure Snipers becomes far more than a mere literary clone of that venerable but stereotyped movie. There are some gripping and shocking plot developments, and some scenarios I genuinely wasn’t certain how they’d be resolved by Picott, keeping my attention all the way to the last page and making me desperately wanting the next book in the series.
Picott has a deftly-plotted narrative that moves along smoothly, inhabited by a cast of fascinating and engaging characters, efficiently introducing new arrivals and fleshing out those from the first book in the series. Not only is there some great, organic character development, but It’s yet another point in Picott’s favour that she isn’t afraid to rotate the cast of characters – new ones are brought into play and old ones are killed off; there’s no sense of plot armour, that bane of the zompoc genre. Every page feels like something unexpected could happen and endanger even the characters most central to the plot – it’s one of the elements that makes the series so appealing. That uncertainty is underlined by the world-building that Picott does throughout the novel, expanding on the brutality of the Soviet occupation and the tactics employed by the occupiers to try and assert their control over the region. It’s a grim subject that she doesn’t gloss over, skilfully merging it with the zombie apocalypse elements of the setting, and portraying the bleak and ever-rising cost of resistance. And as if things weren’t bad enough, not only are the existing zombies as dangerous as ever, but new zombie types appear to ensure the reader hasn’t become too used to the undead, adding an element of evolution to their existence that adds yet more complicating factors to the resistance group’s efforts. The undead continue to be genuinely terrifying, the result of Picott’s eye for clear, concise writing and ability to inject drama at the right time and place, and their unique nature continues to add an element of uncertainty that makes the book – and series – stand out amongst so many pallid competitors.
Tense, horrifying, action-packed and populated with a fresh and engaging cast of characters, as well as a unique take on the undead that continues to evolve and deeply impress me as a reader and reviewer, Snipers is one of the best zombie apocalypse novels that I have read in a long time – and I have read a lot of them. Picott manages to continue the near-impossible feat of reviving the zombie apocalypse genre, delivering an innovative, terrifying and above all engaging story that only picks up speed as the second book in the Zommunist Invasion series races to a shattering and blood-soaked conclusion. This is yet more evidence – as if it were needed – that Picott is a supremely talented and skilled author, and I eagerly look forward to seeing where she takes this series – and any other works she might publish in the future.