Rot and Ruin is - and try not to be shocked - a tale of young adult, post-Apocalyptic dystopia. With zombies. (With the inclusion of a vampire flying an airship, we'd have a genre bingo.) The world ended fourteen years ago when the zombie menace began. The plague of the walking (and biting) dead swept across the land, forcing the living out of the cities and into the hills.
At the start of Rot and Ruin, humanity has reached an uneasy truce with the zombies. Our hero, Benny, has grown up in the town of Mountainside - a small, fenced-off community where everyone is trained in the realities of undeath from a young age. The book begins with Benny reaching the age of adulthood - 15. He's no longer allowed "free" rations from the town and needs to make a living.
After attempting a series of unsuitable jobs, he bites the bullet and teams up with his half-brother, Tom. Tom's a zombie hunter. This should be cool to the impressionable young Benny, but Benny blames Tom for the death of his parents fourteen years ago. As Benny follows Tom around Mountainside and its zombie-plagued environs, he has his eyes opened to the truth. Not just about Tom, but also about Mountainside and the sinister underbelly of the way they live...
There's nothing new in Rot and Ruin, which isn't meant to be a completely perjorative statement. If the tropes and plot are familiar, it is because they're fairly common in the market right now. Readers of all ages are happily gorging themselves on visions of adolescents floundering in hideous worlds. I'm not sure what that says about our generation, but that's probably worth exploring in another post.
The book begins in an awkwardly humorous fashion - Benny's pratfall-filled job-hunt is simply a joking survey of his zombie filled world. But when Mr. Maberry knuckles down and gets with the actual story, the book achieves a much less self-conscious tone. There's a lot of running around in the wilderness, slashing at zombies, dodging bullets, the occasional kidnapping and a weirdly satisfactory training sequence. This bit is all pretty fun - Mr. Maberry writes a punchy action scene, and when everyone is moving, the book really sucks you in.
Unfortunately, the action frequently comes to a grinding halt. Benny and Tom will be building up a good head of steam and then - kapow - derailed by a passing anecdote. What's fun is watching the kids run around and beat zombies. What's not fun is a six page personal account of the events of "First Night". It isn't just that these stories have all been done before (they have), it is that they halt all the book's momentum. Repeatedly.
The other main issue is Benny. He's 15, which means, at the start of the book, he acts like either a precocious 11 year old or a lazy 19. As he matures through the book (rather baldy expressed in scenes where we're told that Benny is sitting around and THINKING), Benny oscillates more wildly between 9 and (more rarely) 62. He grows erratically, and in lop-sided spurts - opening his mind one quick, tiny piece at a time, rather than slowly and holistically.
Throughout the book, Benny's an unlikely leader, yet everyone seems to defer to him. He's self-absorbed, shallow and a bit thick - yet his smart, attractive and caring friends (male & female) are all inexplicably drawn to him. Come to think of it, that is a bit like being 15... But there's something frustrating about following a central character that's neither intelligent nor charismatic. Given a choice between Benny and any of his friends, I'd immediately choose the latter.
The result puts the book in an odd category for me. While reading it, I couldn't put it down. Anne even caught me reading it whilst inattentively stirring pasta. But now that I'm done with Rot and Ruin, I'll never pick it up again. The tumultuous action is addictive, but now that the spell is broken, I can't ever foresee wanting to follow Benny on his adventures again. I'd settle for an expurgated version, that skips the clunky interjections - but I'm afraid that'd be a novella, at best. As a character-focused, action-focused story, Rot and Ruin shambles, zombie-like, in the right direction, but never quite achieves its ultimate destination.