Twenty years ago, I would not have predicted that zombie fiction would grow to the point where it is now considered by many to be its own subgenre. Over the last two decades, zombies have undergone an evolutionary explosion, fanning out to fill available niches like birds and mammals after the K-T extinction. Authors like Nerys Wheatley are blending diverse genre elements to broaden the appeal, as is the case with her novel Mutation, the first book of her Twenty-Five Percent trilogy.
Detective Constable Alexander MacCallum is a ‘Survivor,’ a person who was infected with the zombie virus but received treatment early enough to have a twenty-five percent chance of survival (hence the trilogy name). But many in the uninfected population, known as normals, fear the Survivors, calling them white-eyes, a derogatory term derived from the fact that Survivor’s eyeballs are a featureless white surrounding the pupil. Survivors also emerge with superior strength, speed, sense of smell and night vision. These advantages only serve to exacerbate the fears of normals, who treat them as an anathema. Forced out of other neighborhoods, the Survivors have collected in East Town, but even that segregation is not enough for many normals, who want them completely out of the city, if not dead.
For the second time this month, Alex is awakened in the middle of the night by an angry mob come to East Town to drive off the undesirables. The mob is led by bigoted Micah Clarke, who, for reasons of his own, hates the Survivors with a bitter passion. Alex suspects Micah of being involved in other recent attacks on Survivors and has him locked up for the night to be interrogated in the morning.
But morning comes with other, more pressing complications. It has been thirteen years since the initial outbreak, and incidents of infection have become relatively rare in developed nations. Today, however, a mutated, highly virulent strain of the virus emerges, and by lunchtime the city is overrun by flesh eating horrors. Alex finds himself forced to team up with his enemy, Micah Clarke, in order to survive and try to track down the source of the outbreak.
The novel is packed with tense action scenes, Wheatley’s apparent strength as a writer. She does well in unfolding the mystery of how this outbreak got started and in developing the relationship between adversaries who have no choice but to cooperate in order to survive. But at times Alex and Micah behave more like teenage boys than grown men. Having regular reminders that they have the sexual maturity of seventeen-year-olds in the middle of a zombie apocalypse gets old. Much of this is intended as comic relief between tense moments, but it rarely elevates above common sitcom banter. Other parts that I felt detracted from the overall reading experience were some of the touching moments that came off as too saccharine for my taste.
Although there are elements of other genres blended in with the plot (science fiction, romance, comedy), Mutation is, at its core, zombie horror and will appeal most to fans of that genre. If you don’t care for zombie fiction, the novel is unlikely to make you a convert. Mutation and the other two books in the trilogy (the third volume was published earlier this year) are available in both trade paper and digital formats.
Warning: Mutation contains graphic violence, gore and sexual content that some readers may find disturbing.