I ended my review of the previous book in this series with the words, “Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.” Zombie apocalypse books aren’t a genre I normally read, but the characters and writing in His Name Was Zach were strong enough to hold my attention and make me pick up the sequel.
And what a sequel it is! The foundation Martuneac laid in the first book really pays off in a number of ways in this sprawling epic. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you all the details, lest I spoil both books. But, I’ll do my best to give you the flavor of it.
Our protagonist is, naturally, Abby, the teenaged girl from the first book, who is struggling to survive in the harsh wilds of the Midwest, infested by zombies and small gangs of people struggling for self-preservation with varying degrees of brutality.
For reasons which I can’t say without spoiling the previous installment, but which will be obvious if you have read it, Abby can no longer rely on Zach, the man who raised her, and has to fend for herself. Her Name Was Abby picks up right where the first book left off, with an unrelenting post-apocalyptic world, full of violence, betrayal, and in general a reversion to the anarchic condition of life that Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
This nightmarish world, in which no one can be fully trusted and the worst survive while the best perish, takes a major psychological toll on Abby, whose own hands are far from clean at the end of the first part of the book.
But then, she finds her way to something approaching civilization. And this is where the book takes a turn. For a long time, I’ve wondered why this series is categorized as “dystopian.” Maybe it’s me, but I don’t consider zombie apocalypse books dystopian. (I’m not really sure why. They’re certainly not utopian!) But once Abby reaches the West, she finds an area where the government remains in control.
And when I say “in control,” I mean police-state level control. This is where the book starts to resemble what I think of as a dystopia, as the reconstituted government under President Cyrus Arthur uses patrols of an elite military unit, the DAS, to terrorize the civilian population.
In fairness, we are talking about an outbreak of zombies here. You can see it would take a firm hand to reassert control in a situation like that. As other apologists for other tyrants have said, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” In the case of President Arthur, “breaking eggs” includes a naval bombardment of San Diego. (This incident is only referenced a few times in passing, but somehow I found it one of the most haunting bits of world-building lore in the entire book.)
Abby quickly joins a resistance movement, where she meets a young man close to her own age named Hiamovi, the grandson of the movement’s leader. Abby is, understandably, slow to trust, but eventually she and Hiamovi fall in love.
Unfortunately, nothing good ever seems to last for Abby, and she soon finds herself infiltrating the DAS on an undercover mission that takes her into the very highest levels of the government, and into a relationship with President Arthur’s own son, Derrick.
And that’s about as far as I can go without spoiling things. It’s too bad, because what I’ve summarized so far is just the setup for a thrilling final act, full of suspense, action, and even a remarkable love triangle. It’s really well-done, and pieces that have been hinted at going back to the first book start to fall satisfyingly into place.
For instance: if, like me, you were wondering how the government was managing to keep firm control of the Western half of the country while the East collapses into zombie-barbarism; that question is answered quite clearly in the later parts of this book.
To recap: the first quarter of the book is pure survival-horror, brimming with relentless violence and a constant sense that Abby is living on a razor’s edge, kept alive by a combination of sheer luck and an ever-increasing willingness to betray her own moral code for the chance to see another sunrise.
Then the book transforms, fairly smoothly, from a zombie-horror book to more of a spy thriller. Spy thrillers are more my usual fare, so for me, this was a pleasant surprise.
So, would I say the book is a zombie book with some spy thriller elements, or a spy thriller with some zombie elements?
Answer: it’s neither.
Her Name Was Abby has another facet to it beyond the zombies and the cool high-tech espionage. It’s actually a surprisingly deep psychological portrait of Abby. More specifically, of how Abby tries to cope with all the horrific trauma she’s experienced from a young age.
Now, I get it: almost all thrillers have a Protagonist With A Dark Past™. Many, many books have a flawed anti-hero who is running from some kind of horrible event that has left a scar on their psyche. And it almost always feels forced and fake to me.
But Abby’s feels genuine. I can’t really explain it. Somehow, though, Martuneac conveys her mental state in a way that seems real. Her PTSD flashbacks are vivid, and the way she struggles with feelings of depression, rage, doubt, and guilt are all viscerally powerful.
Abby’s journey is a moving one, and whereas in the previous book she relied heavily on Zach to save her, in this one, she has no one else to turn to. As one character, one of my favorites in the book, says, “If your life is going to be saved, it must be you who does the saving.”
The book has many good lines, but I can’t quote most of them because they would also spoil important plot developments. In general, let me just say that Martuneac’s style of writing is very interesting to me. I do think most modern fiction critics would argue it relies too much on “telling” rather than “showing” and we all know the standard rule about that.
However, I’ve never been completely onboard with this rule. (Yeah, yeah; if you watch the Writers Supporting Writers videos, I’m sure you’re just shocked by this.) I know what people mean when they say it, but at best, it’s badly phrased. Because all fiction is actually telling, never showing. The art is in making people feel like you’re showing them something.
Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying Martuneac tends to use what I think of as an older style of narration that is often detached from the immediate thoughts of the characters. Some people might not like this approach, but personally, I found it kind of refreshing. There is such a thing as too much immediacy, and I feel like a lot of modern fiction has it. Probably because most writers have had the “show, don’t tell” rule drilled into them.
This is a really good story, and one that should have broad appeal. While I do think it’s better to read the series in order, I will say that if you like thrillers but are positively allergic to the zombie genre, you could start by reading this book without reading His Name Was Zach. That’s what H.R.R. Gorman did, and if it’s good enough for Gorman, it’s good enough for me.
And one more thing about Zach. Despite the fact he’s not in this one, his presence still can be felt throughout this book. Like Abby, I often found myself wondering what Zach would think of this or that. I’m always impressed when a character looms large even when not actually “in” the story as such.
I’d like to say a lot more about this book, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll want to check it out, and after you’ve read it, you can come back here and discuss it in detail.
[Audio version of this post available below]