Roc, Mass Market Paperback
The shorthand description I’d use for James Knapp’s debut novel, State of Decay, would probably be ‘Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep meets zombies’. In Knapp’s near future, revivors are re-animated corpses, used as what amounts to slaves, to do the dirty work the living shy away from doing. Only the rich and powerful of Knapp’s upper class have the choice to simply allow their lives to end at death, where as the lower classes have no choice and are zombie-fied to continue serving their nation and government.
What sets Knapp’s zombies apart from the shamblers with which most people are familiar, is the level of intelligence and personality they retain upon being revived. In a sense, whereas the commonly held conception of Frankenstein’s monster is a mindless brute and the truth of Shelley’s creation is that the creature is articulate and intelligent.
Initially, the novel is told from the first person POV of Nico Wachalowski, an FBI agent and himself a veteran with experience interacting and dealing with revivors. Nico signed up for his assignment in the FBI so he wouldn’t be turned into a revivor himself. In short, we’ve got a “broken man” trying to discover the source of a string of murders whereby the primary suspect(s) is involved in Revivor technology. Another way in which Knapp sets his story apart from a typical mystery is the shift in narrative focus. That is, while the novel is indeed told from a first person POV, Knapp switches that first person between a total of four characters. In addition to Nico, our POV characters are Faye Desalia, Zoe Ott, and Calliope Flax.
I can’t help but give credit to Knapp for what he’s trying to do here. In the current state of the genre, Zombies can be considered the new vampires, they inhabit some of the more popular video game franchises, some of the most popular comic books, popular movies, and thanks to the recent adaptation of The Walking Dead TV screens. Knapp is hitting upon a hot trope and seems to be having fun with it. He’s playing with that trope in interesting ways, though he isn’t exactly the first to show zombies being used as a form of slavery. His zombies, as I previously indicated, retain a portion of themselves. This is where the comparison to Blade Runner comes into play as one of the questions posed by the narrative and the characters is whether or not these reanimated corpses are humans and whether or not they have rights. It’s an interesting question to pose – just where does humanity end and death begin?
One problem I had with the book was keeping the characters straight. Knapp provides headers before he jumped into each of the four POV narrators, but their character voices blended too much for me and I found it difficult to distinguish one from the other. Each character being a first person POV also made it more difficult to delineate the characters in that statements often us the “I” or “me” pronoun rather than the “Nico said” or “Zoe thought” designator.
If anything, State of Decay can be too ambitious at times. Knapps core idea is intriguing, but I almost got the sense that he was trying to put all of his good ideas into one novel, when he could have perhaps filtered out one or two for a more precise and exact narrative.
All told, State of Decay is a commendable debut that should appeal to many readers. Despite my aforementioned issues, the pacing allowed the novel to move quickly. If Knapp can sharpen his pen a bit, then the next book in the series could really be something special.
© 2011 Rob H. Bedford