The outbreak tore the US in two. The east remains a safe haven. The west has become a ravaged wilderness, known by survivors as the Evacuated States. It is here that Henry Marco makes his living. Hired by grieving relatives, he tracks down the dead and delivers peace.
Now Homeland Security wants Marco for a mission unlike any other. He must return to California, where the apocalypse began. Where a secret is hidden. And where his own tragic past waits to punish him again. But in the wastelands of America, you never know who — or what — is watching you.
This novel caught my eye a while ago, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting it ever since. I’ve not read much zombie fiction, because I’ve always had an uninformed prejudice against it, believing it might be rather limited as a genre. After reading Chuck Wendig’s Double Dead, watching The Walking Dead and reading The Return Man, however, I am certainly re-evaluating that position. This novel is engaging, tense, gripping and very well written. I was hooked from the get-go.
From the very beginning, Zito plays with our expectations. He gives an almost idyllic air to the opening pages. It’s somewhat reminiscent of when Frodo watches as Gollum goes fishing (in the film), if only Gollum was a mindless zombie. The whole of his first mission, before we learn too much about Marco and before he gets his orders from Homeland Security, is one of the best scenes I’ve read in a long while. Marco is alone, and on a return job, and Zito offers us an intimate look at the psychology of a man living in solitude, surrounded by (un)death. It’s tense, atmospheric, and there’s also some great action. I was hooked. Things do change quite a bit after he completes the job (pace, style, story), but what an opening!
Henry Marco has remained behind after the mass-evacuations from the Western states of America. He stayed in the hopes that his missing girlfriend, Danielle, might turn up and he could get closure – he has no idea if she’s alive or undead. He thinks of her constantly, even talks to her, but we also learn more about their relationship as the novel goes on – the ups and downs – and see Marco’s way of coping with his situation is to focus on the best parts of their relationship and do anything to avoid the more painful memories.
The mission he’s given by Homeland Security, however, won’t allow him to avoid his past. Instead, he must face it head-on, thereby dredging up some of his most painful memories, and things soon become extremely complicated.
Marco spends a lot of time pondering the state of America – not only life and death in the Evacuated States, but also life in the still living states. If that’s what you want to call them. Through his interactions with distraught family members trying to find their missing loved ones, Marco gleans some insight into life in the safe states, and what America’s new situation has done to its people.
“how fucked up the world had turned. How it made the dead so alive and the living feel so dead.”
With its heightened national solipsism, “America is dead.” The United States has finally fallen, as declinists have always feared. Only, instead of Imperial overreach, it’s because of an internal catastrophe that has turned their hyper-attention inwards. It’s quite interesting, really, as that’s what a lot of International Relations/Political Scientists scholars think will happen to China. (Not Zombies, but some other internal disruption or catastrophe – although, Zombies might be more interesting. They’d probably keep it secret, like they did with SARS… Oh, now there’s a premise for a novel…!)
[Editorial Sidebar: If the union of international relations and zombies appeals, I would direct you to Dan Drezner’s book on that subject, which I read and very much enjoyed last year.]
It’s difficult to talk too much about many of the other characters in the novel (few in number as they are), without spoiling some important twists and key events. Therefore, I’ll limit myself to one other: Kheng Wu. Wu is a really interesting guy – it took me a while to draw a bead on him, however, to figure him out. Because of his orders, Wu attempts to retain an emotionless detachment from Marco, but even he, the highly capable special-ops soldier benefits from Marco’s experience in the Evacuated States. The two unwilling companions form a bond of sorts, the need for survival trumping any sense of distrust they may feel for each other. This leads to some interesting decisions and interactions, as well as a few surprising moments of bonding.
The novel is tightly written, in very brisk prose. Zito manages to rein in any florid descriptive tendencies he may have had, and the descriptions of the corpses, skirmishes, and so on are very well done. There’s little nonsense with metaphors, similes, and so forth. The combat is straight-up, brutal and quick; descriptions of the corpses are just gribbly enough to make us queasy, but not over-the-top. I was very thankful for this. The first half-or-so has pretty spare prose, too, and I thought it was very concise and stripped down. During the second half, however, and especially the last 100 pages or so, a small handful of overdone phrases and descriptions crept into the writing (“He felt the chambers of his heart flood with empathy” and “The word rode from him on a beautiful chariot of air”, for example – p.369 and p.371, respectively) – most of this can be attributed to the characters’ emotional and physical exhaustion and distress at the time, so is easily forgiven. It was just something I noticed, and something I thought was uncharacteristic after almost 400 pages of pretty great prose.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this novel, and indeed the synopsis didn’t prepare me for how big this novel was going to get – not in terms of length, as it’s not longer than many SFF novels released these days; but in terms of scope and imagination. Again, I’m not overly versed in zombie-lore, but I found this to be an imaginative and original novel.
Thought-provoking, pleasantly (not to mention surprisingly) attuned to international relations, and very human. It has a very tense atmosphere. It has great, evocative writing – the reader really gets a feel for the horrifyingly expectant existence in the quarantined states. The Return Man also has a poignant, fitting denouement, which leaves open the possibility of more to come in this setting.
The Return Man is very highly recommended. This is a thought-provoking, suspenseful and above all gripping take on the Zombie Apocalypse sub-genre. Brilliant.
The Return Man is out now, published by Orbit in the US and Hodder in the UK.