We all know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but let’s face it: there are a lot of books out there, and many times we judge books by the description on the book cover flaps. Sometimes that description is inadequate, and sometimes it’s just terrible. For instance, would you be interested in a book that had this on the inside cover flap?
“Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy.
The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates
and sent him out into the world.
To where the monsters lived.”
No, I probably wouldn’t, either. That’s the flap copy for The Boy on the Bridge, by M. R. Carey, and whoever wrote that description should be fired (or at least disciplined) for it, because not only is it inadequate to the point of leaving out most of the good stuff in the book, but it’s actually misleading (as you’ll see). And it’s practically a crime, because the book in question is so good and such a great read that you’ll be missing out massively if you choose not to take the book out based on that description.
This book is set in the same world as The Girl with All the Gifts, which, as you know, I absolutely loved and recommended to just about everybody, but you don’t need to have read the first book in order to appreciate this one (though there is no reason in the world why, if this book sounds intriguing to you, you shouldn’t run out and read The Girl with All the Gifts). It completely stands on its own; everything you need to know about this world is set up right away.
It’s England in the future, suffering through the aftermath of a terrible disease which turns people into what the remaining humans call “hungries.” They’re essentially zombies; their entire nervous systems have been parasitized by a fungus that leaves them with no volition and pretty much no movement except when they’re in the presence of food, when they run and attack and kill. As with most zombies, a bite leads to infection, and the person so infected loses his or her personality and ability to think almost immediately. The human population has been nearly wiped out, and the remaining humans cluster together in small barricaded enclaves.
People haven’t completely given up, of course, though the situation is absolutely dire. Military solutions were tried, including the firebombing of a portion of England where the “hungries” were congregated, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent human beings. Scientists are trying to find out what causes this disease and whether there’s anything that can be done to cure it or vaccinate against it or at least slow it down, without much success to date (although a special lotion has been invented that cuts down on a human’s smell so the hungries aren’t able to smell them from afar and zero in on them). As part of the scientific research, an armored tank called the Charles Darwin went on a trip through England and Scotland, leaving samples of the fungus in different places to see whether there were any places where the fungus died or had its growth slowed. The Charles Darwin never returned to its home base and nobody knows what happened to it or to its crew. Another tank, the Rosalind Franklin (affectionately known as the “Rosie”), is following the track of the Charles Darwin, with a crew of scientists and military people (for the scientists’ protection) hoping to find some hint that the fungus can be contained or destroyed. It’s the voyage of the Rosie through hungries-infested territory that forms the spine of the book.
The “boy” referred to in the title is Stephen Greaves, a young man who may be on the autism spectrum or may be just utterly traumatized by witnessing the deaths of his parents and everybody he ever knew in an attack by the hungries. He is unquestionably bright, but his intelligence is not something the people of the town recognized (in fact, the only reason he’s along on the expedition is because one of the scientists, Dr. Samrina Khan, made his inclusion a requirement for her joining the expedition), and his strange behavior has alienated the soldiers on the crew of the tank as well, who refer to him (when they’re feeling polite) as “the Robot,” and worse things when they’re not polite. Stephen is the one who invented the gel that hides people’s smell from the hungries, but he’s not resting on his laurels: he wants to understand the disease and the creatures suffering from it. In one of his unauthorized forays from the Rosie, he sees a different kind of hungry, a somewhat feral girl who, though bearing all the physical signs of the usual hungries, acts like a human being with the capability to think and plan and communicate. She is, Stephen thinks, an anomaly, a different kind of creature, and he wants to find out more about her (and the other children with her), no matter where that leads.
The book is filled with characters in conflict: the military side of the expedition has a low opinion of the scientists and vice versa, there are schisms within the military group, and the leader of the civilians is respected by nobody (and, as we come to find out, they have no reason to respect him). Living for seven months in a cramped space makes things worse, and when Dr. Khan gets pregnant, her situation adds another potential problem for the crew as the expedition goes from bad to worse.
I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, because it’s the kind of book that picks you up and carries you along, immersing you in this frightening post-apocalyptic world and making you root for the complex characters and their dilemmas. I read the book in a day, because I couldn’t put it down once I got into it, the same way I read The Girl with All the Gifts. This writer knows how to crank up the suspense and how to make you care about the characters. Take my advice: don’t even bother reading the flap of this book. Take it out and give yourself time to dive in and live in this amazing, terrifying world.