I'm With Geek | 15 July 2014 | Hayley Charlesworth

As part of the recent Manchester Children’s Book Festival, I was offered the opportunity to go to an event celebrating Darren Shan, in which the author read from the first book in his latest saga, Zom-B, spoke about everything from his writing process, to why he chose zombies, to racism, and even took the time for audience questions and his signature strangle photos with fans. While the eighth book in the series, Zom-B: Clans, has just seen its release, let us go back to the book that started it all, and take a look at a wholly unique spin on the living dead.


Zom-B is the story of B Smith, a violent, aggressive teenager raised in a house rife with racism and domestic abuse courtesy of B’s father (a man who seems to straddle the line between BNP and Ku Klux Klan). Desperate to gain his respect, B also has some racist tendencies, attacking black students at school despite a questioning conscience. The backdrop to this domestic story is a zombie invasion taking place in Ireland, which neither B nor the others at school believe in until zombies swarm into the gym.

 

There’s a lot going on in Zom-B, and it’s quite a surprising read. Until the last few chapters, the zombies are a mere backdrop to a story that touches on such complex themes as institutionalised racism, domestic violence, gender identity, and intolerance being passed through generations. B is a difficult character to like, given B’s racist behaviour, but Shan gives us enough understanding of the Smith home-life, and of B’s reasoning, that it is possible to at least understand B’s motivations, even if readers don’t agree with them. Just as George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead can be as a metaphor for the social problems facing America at the time, it’s not difficult to draw comparisons between the zombies and the racists of Shan’s book, and look at who is the biggest monster. Is it the mindless zombies tearing apart the students? Or is it B’s dad and his friends, who force B to commit a horrific and unspeakable act in order to survive? With the rise of fundamentalism and parties such as UKIP, Zom-B is a series that is definitely of its time, socially, and is probably one of the bravest and most important young adult stories around at the moment.

 

There are a number of surprises in the first Zom-B book alone, which it would be unfair to spoil for new readers in this review. All that can be said is that, at this point, despite being told from B’s perspective, we don’t really know B at all. We can’t yet separate what are B’s opinions and beliefs from those of B’s father. There’s a major reveal regarding B in the climax that is stunning, and will change the way you see the entire book from that point on. And then there’s B’s dream, a disturbing vision of murderous, vampiric babies attacking on a plane, that, as of yet, goes unexplained.

 

Zom-B raises enough questions to sustain it through a lengthy series, with a mere three-month gap between each release to keep readers hooked. As with The Saga of Darren Shan, The Demonata and The Saga of Larten Crepsley, Zom-B is a brilliantly crafted horror which serves the intelligence of younger readers rather than dumbing down. But with Zom-B, we have potentially Shan’s most intellectual and socially relevant story to date.

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