M.R. Carey’s spectacular 2014 novel The Girl With All The Gifts was a revelation. It’s the kind of book that’s best read with absolutely no knowledge going on, because of the way it drops readers into a future world where nothing can be assumed, and every new reveal comes as a surprise. Readers have to keep up as Carey unfolds his shocking facts about the protagonist, her circumstances, and the history that leads to the beginning of the book. So it’s only natural that the prequel novel, The Boy On The Bridge, can’t build the same sense of engagement and discovery. Instead of building an entire world from scratch, it takes the first book’s setting for granted, and focuses on the people within it. But this book’s story of selfishness, pettiness, anger, and poor choices is comparatively predictable. And the fact that it’s a prequel doesn't help. From the beginning, its action is headed toward a foreordained conclusion.
It’s impossible to discuss either book without spoiling some of the secrets Girl With All The Gifts uses to draw intrigue from the opening chapters of the book — or the opening moments of the strong 2016 film adaptation. So consider this a warning: even discussing the genre of these books is giving away critical information. Proceed at your own risk.
As an author, Carey is a master of re-invention. His spectacular comics series The Unwritten reinvents Harry Potter as a real-life boy immortalized in his father’s fantasy novels, and dealing with the backlash of the magical intrigue built around his father’s work. His Lucifer comics draw on Neil Gaiman’s version of the devil, and reinvent him as an unwilling cosmic wanderer in a constant battle against his past and his creator. And in Girl With All The Gifts, Carey re-invents the zombie story for an era that’s pretty tired of zombie stories.
The book centers on Melanie, a 10-year-old girl infected with the Cordyceps fungus, which compromises hosts’ central nervous systems. Obeying the impulse to spread the fungal infection to new hosts, the infected become mindless biting machines. But Melanie and the other children in her containment facility she still have mental function. She’s a bright, sweet prodigy who authentically loves her teacher Miss Justineau, and the way the facility’s soldiers treat her like an hazardous object or a rabid animal provides a fair bit of the book’s tension. The Boy On The Bridge also has an unusual central character: 15-year-old Stephen Greaves, a scientific genius whose lab work gave humanity its best weapon to date against the mindless “hungries.” His roll-on chemical blocker hides human pheromones from hungries’ senses. And yet, like Melanie, he’s surrounded by adults who largely treat him with contempt, caution, or outright loathing.
Greaves’ perceptions and behaviors are very close to those of protagonist Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon’s 2003 bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Like Christopher, Greaves is unnerved by physical contact, untrue statements, and uncertainty, and he approaches challenges with a mechanical, scientific interest. Like Christopher, he’s drawn as though he’s somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but no specific diagnosis is given; it’s implied that he could simply be suffering from extreme PTSD. Regardless, he’s brought along on a crucial scientific mission not because of his considerable analytical skills or his intriguing theories about hungries, but because another scientist, Samrina Khan, refused to take the trip without him. They’re two of the 10 crew members of the heavily armed mobile laboratory Rosalind Franklin, which the barricaded last-stand city Beacon sent out on a desperate mission to try to analyze the Cordyceps fungus and synthesize a cure for infected humans. The Rosalind Franklin was found abandoned in Girl With All The Gifts, which makes the crew’s fate in Boy On The Bridge feel predictable from the start, but there’s always a question of who might have survived, and what they might have accomplished.
From the beginning, Boy On The Bridge suffers by comparison with its predecessor, not just because it has so few secrets to unfurl, but because its character dynamic is so strikingly similar to the one in Girl With All The Gifts. Once again, there’s an underage genius who’s underestimated by his travel companions, except for the nurturing mother-figure (Khan, in this case) who he regards as special, the only person who truly matters. Once again, there’s a conniving, unpleasant lead scientist as a villain, and a gruff military commander in charge of the group, and a handful of doomed soldiers. The arguments about whether to go back or forward, and about whether to trust the prodigy-child, feel largely the same as they did in the previous book, but this time, they aren’t as startling and unpredictable.
The major added wrinkle here is the troublesome politics going on back at Beacon, and the way they set up murderous intrigue among the Rosalind Franklin’s crew. But even that subplot seems removed from the action. It’s reliant on stingily parsed-out details coming from a Beacon military group, and relevant to the story only for how it affects a few secretive characters. Until the book’s climax, it all feels like a distant threat, like thunderclouds on the horizon.
And the book has the usual problem of after-the-fact prologues. Girl With All The Gifts comes to a stunning ending that alters the fabric of the world. Knowing that ending is on the way makes it harder to care about the petty personal squabbles between soldiers on the Rosalind Franklin, or Greaves’ race against time to find a cure that readers already know isn’t coming. Too much of the book seems irrelevant — certainly not to the characters, who are facing life and death threats, but to the larger story. They’re trying to answer questions that have already been answered for readers. Too much of the story’s action consists of them making discoveries that characters already made in the previous book, or battling the same despair, anger, and fear that their predecessors battled. Only Khan and Greaves are drawn with a level of detail and investment that makes their ultimate fate seem to matter. And both of them are frustrating in their own way — particularly Greaves, whose consistent withholding of vital information moves the story forward, but also justifies the way other characters treat him. His inability to communicate sets up a lot of narrative tension, but it’s more exasperating than exciting.
The Boy On The Bridge does ultimately come to a tense and thrilling conclusion, as the Beacon situation flares up, and Greaves faces an awful choice. And an eventual coda that leaps forward in time, addressing what the world looks like after Girl With All The Gifts, brings back some of the surprise of the first book. But too much of the book feels redundant or insignificant. Girl With All The Gifts is an explosive novel. The prequel feels like a faint aftershock by comparison.
Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge