The dead are rising, literally. The lazy way to put it would be that zombies are the new vampires but the truth is both a little simpler and a little more nuanced than that. Zombies, like vampires, are a concept that’s beautiful in its simplicity; a human corpse, still wearing the physical and emotional accoutrements of its life, animated and seeking living flesh. Zombies rise with satire and commentary hard-wired in and you only have to look at the variety of approaches taken to the concept, from the brutally dark comedy of both versions of Dawn of the Dead through to the quiet, English apocalypse of the 28 Days Later diptych to see that the zombie can be whatever we want or need it to be. This is the monster as blank canvas, inviting and daring authors to do something different with them.
Necropolis Rising does two very clever, very pulpy things with its central conceit. Here the action is moved to Birmingham, England’s second city and the last place anyone would expect Armageddon to begin. Jeffrey has a nice eye for human for detail and the events that destroy so many lives are started here by nothing but good intentions and bad luck. It’s a ‘for wont of a nail’ kind of approach and it works well, especially coupled with the gentle, almost polite descriptions of Birmingham. It’s a nice city, one where normal things happen and Jeffrey has great fun turning that on its head, especially in the sequence where an entire football stadium of fans, killed and resurrected, assaults the main characters.
Jeffrey also uses this normality to emphasise how abnormal the situation is. There’s a palpable sense of panic to a lot of the scenes on the ground, and Jeffrey again has a nice eye for detail as two separate teams of characters converge on one location for very similar reasons. This gives the book’s action sequences, especially the climactic ones, a real sense of scale as one group of characters witness something that the other has caused, or the consequences of one person’s actions are felt by everyone still standing, regardless of whether or not they have a pulse. Jeffrey thinks big and that action movie sensibility, combined with the unusual setting gives the story a unique tone balanced somewhere between macho chest beating and desperate pathos.
This is further accentuated by Jeffrey’s smart character choices. The principles are a group of thieves who’ve been hired to extract something from Hilton Towers, the building at the centre of both the story and the disaster. It’s a nice idea, juxtaposing the discipline of the armed forces with the shambling anarchy of zombies and it’s given an extra twist here by the characters’ backgrounds. Kevin O’Connell and Stu Kanaka, the two leads, are ex-Royal Marines driven to their life by making a difficult, and right, choice. Neither man is a saint, both have blood on their hands but both are trying to use their past rather than make amends for it. These are good men who do bad things for a living and Jeffrey uses the Birmingham disaster to bring this to the fore again and again. O’Connell in particular is a fascinating character, a man with infinite compassion and infinite capacity for violence, both of which lie at the heart of his relationship with his team. O’Connell is pathologically incapable of walking away from someone in need and this colours his interactions with his team, in particular Suzy Hanks, his girlfriend. O’Connell is a troubled man, certainly, but he’s fiercely loyal and Jeffrey cheerfully uses that loyalty as a stick to beat his hapless hero with. No one wins in Necropolis Rising, people just get lucky and far fewer people than normal at that.
This willingness to take pulp archetypes and situations and turn them on their head is what lies at the heart of the book. Jeffrey lays out all the usual toys for a story like this; shadowy corporation, different types of zombie, lone survivor, traitor in our midst etc and uses all of them in very different ways. Some of it is groundwork for the sequel, certainly, but the interaction between O’Connell’s team and the Royal Marines sent in to extract the only survivor of the Hilton Towers experiments is very unusual and pleasantly surprising. Likewise that survivor, Thom Everett, is an odd combination of every-man and potential monster and it’ll be interesting to see where Jeffrey goes with him in the sequel. There’s a lot of ground work wrapped around Thom but his abilities are neatly tied to his dreadful childhood in a way which balances empowerment with vengeance. Thom could go either way, and that sense of jeopardy, of contained threat is something which Jeffrey uses to tremendous effect. The finale in particular is a colossal action sequence with one genuinely unique high spot, all of which is wrapped around a very strong emotional core. This is a zombie apocalypse story, certainly, but the people on the front line are just that; people. Flawed, desperate, human and very mortal.
Necropolis Rising is a neatly balanced combination of action, polite English apocalypse and smart, tightly designed pulp. It’s assured, tightly plotted and consistently surprising, marking it out as something very different in an increasingly crowded market. If you like your thrills undead, then you need to read this.