The middle chapter of a trilogy is an inherently difficult story to tell. It’s essentially the second act of a larger narrative, but at the same time it has to function on its own. These middle-children of the story world sometimes lack the excitement of discovery that’s evident when we first learn about a world and its inhabitants, its rules. That fun is the province of first chapters.
These middle chapters also tend to be devoid of triumphs, as a good writer will be relentlessly and increasingly mean to her protagonist throughout this span of the story. The structure of a solid narrative demands it. Those triumphant or redemptive catharses are left to third chapters. So in a standalone piece that isn’t really intended to stand alone at all, how can these middle chapter issues be reconciled?
Well, in the right hands the answer is quite spectacularly. Anyone out there with true nerd bona fides needn’t look any further than The Empire Strikes Back. Granted, that movie’s masterful writer and director, neither of whom is named George Lucas, deserve the lion’s share of the credit for that middle chapter’s exemplary success. But that’s the point. In the right hands, the middle chapter’s darkness, despair and peril comprise the ripest ground in which riveting narrative can blossom.
And this, Horror Fans, brings us to the reason you’re reading this review – Plague Nation: An Ashley Parker Novel by author Dana Fredsti. Plague Nation is the follow up novel to Plague Town and as you might have guessed it’s the middle book in a planned three book series. Did Fredsti bestow the horror genre with another Empire or just another Hannibal?
Plague Nation begins where the events of Plague Town leave off. Ashley Parker, a late-twenties divorcee and college student at Redwood Grove University in California, is what’s known as a wild card. Wild cards are immune to the virus that causes people to die and reanimate as zombies. At the university, Ashley and a handful of other wildcards are keeping the zombie outbreak in check while Dr. Albert and members of the DZN – a centuries-old global paramilitary organization whose sole mission is to eradicate and cover up zombie plagues – work to find a cure to the zombie virus. Unbeknownst to our heroes the ostensibly isolated outbreak at the campus of Big Red has spread outside the confines of the quarantine zone and Redwood Grove at large.
Progress on a cure for the zombie epidemic is slow and just when things seem headed in the right direction, the lab is set ablaze and nearly all progress is compromised. This apparent sabotage prompts our group to head to San Francisco, the closest place equipped to set up a new lab where discovering the cure will be the only way to save the nation and perhaps the world from zombie-induced obliteration. To make matters worse, Ashley’s current flame and DZN member Gabriel has a different type of zombie immunity, though one that requires he consume human flesh to stay alive. The medicine that keeps Gabriel’s condition in check is in short supply after the lab fire and time is running out.
All things point to a living, breathing antagonist mastermind, but will the group be able to survive long enough to figure out who’s behind this disaster? Not everyone will make it to San Francisco. Some who do will be changed forever. And all the while the fate of humankind hangs in the balance….
The problems that naturally plague most middle stories of a trilogy also mildly plague Plague Nation (Did I ever mention how much I like the word “plague”?), but they’re largely overcome by Fredsti’s fast-paced plotting, infectious characters, and outstanding set pieces.
The absence of an introduction to Ashley, her cohorts, and their world does leave a void. But rather than attempting to fill it by conjuring up plot devices as a means to reintroduce everything or by meting out a redundant synopsis of Plague Town, Fredsti opts instead to hit the ground sprinting. As a result we’re thrust directly into the thick of things involving the wild cards’ mission under the guidance of the DZN to eradicate the infected from the quarantine zone. This is interspersed with depictions of zombie uprisings all around the United States, from small rural communities to bustling municipalities. The scope of the problem increases quickly and steadily which injects Plague Nation with more tension than Nosferatu crashing Edward’s graduation party.
Plague Nation is naturally less intimate than its predecessor as the emphasis is weighted more toward plot than characterization, but Ashley’s first-person narrative perspective provides the yin to that yang by never letting us forget who these characters are and what they truly care about. It’s a delicate balance that so many other writers have bungled (I cite the first half of The Walking Dead Season 3 as one example of how to mishandle this plot/character ratio dilemma). Ashley’s pop cultural sensibilities and irreverent take on life guide us through the perils of this apocalypse with humor and relatable humanity.
The function of Plague Nation is largely to transport its protagonists from the level of peril established in Plague Town to one that’s exponentially more complex and severe, setting up the forthcoming Plague World as a make-it-or-break-it scenario in which the stakes couldn’t be higher for our heroes. This book succeeds in doing so substantively due to Fredsti’s deft and consistent storytelling which allows for a tale that features so much chaos and action to retain a palpable emotional resonance.
The book has a few too many characters for its own good and the end feels a bit abrupt which lays bare the aforementioned means-to-an-end functionality of this “middle chapter”. But these weaknesses are the only minor blemishes in what is otherwise a high-intensity gore fest that’s funny, sad, scary and everything else it needs to be. Ashley Parker’s wit is nearly as dangerous as her enhanced physical abilities and katana sword are. She’s a perfectly dynamic conduit through which we experience Fredsti’s high-octane take on the zombie mythos.
Plague Nation and its predecessor Plague Town will satisfy fans of Joss Whedon’s Buffy-verse, The Walking Dead, Heroes and other similar serials.
Plague Nation: An Ashley Parker Novel is available from Titan Books.