Plague of the Undead by Joe McKinney

Plague of the Undead by Joe McKinney(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

For thirty years, they have avoided the outbreak of walking death that has consumed America’s heartland. They have secured a small compound near the ruins of Little Rock, Arkansas. Isolated from the world. Immune to the horror. Blissfully unaware of what lies outside in the region known as the Dead Lands. Until now…

Led by a military vet who’s seen better days, the inexperienced offspring of the original survivors form a small expedition to explore the wastelands around them. A biologist, an anthropologist, a cartographer, a salvage expert—all are hoping to build a new future from the rubble. Until all hell breaks loose…

The infected are still out there. Stalking. Feeding. Spreading like a virus. Wild animals roam the countryside, hunting prey. Small pockets of humanity hide in the shadows: some scared, some mad, all dangerous. This is the New World. If the explorers want it, they’ll have to take it. Dead or alive…

From the blurb of this book, I was absolutely fascinated.  It’s rare that you get a surviving, almost thriving community 30 years after the apocalypse but it’s even rarer that they’re eager to explore and that zombies are still out there.  How did the zombies not rot away?  Is Arbella the only community still out there?  What happens when the next generation of survivors, the ones that have only known a post-apocalyptic world, encounter the rest of the people that have survived?  Answer: nothing good.

In the beginning of Plague of the Undead, our main character Jacob has a huge moral dilemma: he’s the sheriff of the town and a man has committed a crime.  Now normally that would not be a big deal but the problem is that crime was theft and that’s against the Code.  It means death for the man who stole because trust is the most important thing you can have post-apocalypse.  So poor Jacob has to kill his first man in cold blood, looking him right in the face to make sure he doesn’t miss his shot.  With a beginning like that, you’d expect the book to keep being pretty awesome.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t really the case.  The book starts out pretty exciting as Jacob shoots a man, gets promoted, gets approval to take an expedition out into the dead lands and sets out on said expedition.  The problem is that once the group is actually out and about, things get boring pretty quickly.

The main problem in this book is the middle: it drags on and on in one place.  Long story short, the survivors get ambushed by some bad guys and the survivors of the attack are forced into slavery.  Then a huge chunk of the book is devoted to how Jacob and the survivors cope during the slavery and how they try to escape.  In a lot of cases I wouldn’t find this boring because it would be interesting from a psychology perspective or even just from a character development perspective.  But it really wasn’t.  The lack of pacing just dragged the whole plot down to the point where I really wasn’t even interested in the mysterious flying saucers and finding out how much of civilization was really left.  I just wanted the book to be over.

In the beginning, Jacob shows a lot of promise as a character.  He doesn’t want to kill the man convicted of theft but at the same time he has to in order to maintain the Code and therefore maintain law and order in Arbella.  And when he finally gets approval for the wasteland scavenging/information gathering mission, he’s ecstatic and has to plan like mad.  From personal experience I completely understand the frustration he faces as every single person criticizes how he’s going about the mission but he sticks to his guns and sets out with a great plan and a good team.  Then when things go south, Jacob as a character sort of goes downhill.  He becomes more of a walking stereotype.  He pines after Kelly (the woman he used to love as a teenager), becomes colder as the slavery takes its toll and tries to ignore just how skeevy his best friend/enemy is.  It’s like that fascinating, well-rounded character we meet in the beginning was thrown out the window and replaced with a total wimp that lacks the psychological depth of the first character.

The world-building was decent in comparison to the pacing and the characterization.  I liked the explanation Joe McKinney gave for why the zombies weren’t rotting even thirty years later and I liked the way he set up Arbella as a good model of what people can do during the apocalypse.  There are some horrible communities like you’d expect, but he shows that not only the bad people survive and thrive during the apocalypse.  That’s quite a bit different from your typical zombie apocalypse tropes.  I also love how he explained the ammunition problem and how he solved some of the problems with guns during the apocalypse, like the sound issue.  I think a lot of research went into Plague of the Undead but the problem is that the actual story itself was rather boring.

In the end, I don’t know whether or not I can recommend this book.  It won a Bram Stoker award so clearly some people didn’t think it was rubbish or disappointing but at the same time I just can’t say that I enjoyed it.  I guess you just have to do your own research, read a couple of reviews from different sides of the issue and make a decision.

I give this book 2/5 stars.

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